Emma walked to the old Catholic church. Built of logs in the 1800’s, it was one of the first buildings constructed in the valley. The town was now deserted, everyone home with their families. There were no cars in the parking lot; midnight mass wouldn’t begin for a few hours. She could see the soft glow of the stained glass windows through the falling snow. She came every Christmas Eve, not because she was a devout Catholic—hardly. She had been the number one doubter in her family. She came to remember her mother and Gran. Her mother had never missed a service and had been part of the League of Catholic Women. She had raised her children with a good deal of love and guilt. Gran, on the other hand, was an old-country Catholic who, along with all the religious holidays, celebrated the solstices and equinoxes and believed in the pre-Christian goddess who had become Mary after centuries of matriarchy. Emma, who was quite the intellectual feminist in her day, liked the fact that a female deity was even included in Catholicism. She didn’t believe literally in the virgin birth, but she loved the story of it. Once she had asked Gran, demanding an absolute in her teenage angst, what was the truth about religion? “It’s what is in your heart, Emma. If it’s a debate between your mind and your heart, go with the heart.”
In her heart she knew she believed in the “Great Mystery,” whatever it was, and still she loved the quiet beauty of a church. She took off her coat in the vestibule. How lucky, she thought, to be the only one there. She entered the church and paused, taking in the smell of the damp hymn books and melted wax. Incense lingered in the corners; pine boughs were strung along the pews. She passed by the bowl of holy water and moved to the front near the altar. She slid across one of the polished wooden benches and sat for a moment. She was always grateful that the little church had no crucifix, only a small wooden cross. She vividly remembered the large crucifix in St. Joseph’s cathedral in San Francisco, the statue of Jesus, his face writhing in pain, realistic blood painted on his palms and feet. Here, Emma looked at the Madonna of the Mountain, a simple but delicately carved wooden statue, the compassionate face of Mary gazing down at her baby boy.
She got up and moved to the side altar, lighting three candles, her own personal ritual. One for the past, and all of the loved ones who had crossed: Mother, Father, Gran, her husband, Ronnie, and their child, Theo. The old pain filled her momentarily. She lit the next candle for the present, asking for peace on earth. Lastly, she lit a candle for the future, hoping for a good outcome for Briar, and asking for guidance in the young heart of Cat.
She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear Liam’s quiet footsteps coming down the aisle. But she realized that someone had sat down behind her. She remained facing forward, her eyes closed, then turned to go back to the pew. Liam looked into her face, the warmth of recognition spreading across his mouth.
“Emma,” he whispered. She started down the aisle, but he signaled her to come to him. Her legs were quivering as she slid in, near him, but far enough away that they weren’t touching. “We have to stop meeting like this,” he laughed quietly, taking her hand. She gently pulled away to brush hair out of her eyes.
“Merry Christmas, Liam.” Only silence moved between them. Finally he said, “Did you know that my mother’s uncle carved the Madonna of the Mountain
about a hundred years ago? She’s made of white oak, and the child is cedar. Behind her cloak on the back right side he carved an acorn, a symbol still important to the Green River tribe. Come with me; I’ll show it to you.” She felt light-headed as she followed him around to the back of the Madonna. “Right here, see it? And over here he carved a horse with wings.” She bent to see the cross-hatched design.
They both stood up. He looked down at her, his eyes serious, questioning. His braid fell over the front of his broad shoulder. “Emma, oh, God forgive me, but...”
She was torn, ripped down the middle, panicked. Her heart wanted him so badly, but her mind screamed, Don’t! Candlelight flickered a red warning.
“Emma...please,” he whispered, close to her face, “can’t we just...talk about...”
Her resistance faltered; her knees went weak; she couldn’t look at him. “I don’t know...it’s been so long and I’m afraid...”
He smelled of soap and cedar. He took her hand and it burned into her palm. The quiet of the church seemed deafening. Then suddenly she was in his arms, his mouth warm on hers. She pulled back, but the old hunger consumed them as he kissed her neck and moaned, “Oh, God, Emma.” The sweet strength of him wrapped around her as he kissed her forehead and cheeks and her mouth again.
They heard a car door slam and then another. Father Lawrence’s voice called out, “Michael and Billy, you look festive. Do you think you can remember the words?” As the priest entered the church, Emma was walking up the aisle and Liam was seated in a pew. As she brushed past the priest her eyes were downcast and her face flushed.
“Merry Christmas, Father,” she murmured. “Ah, Emma,” said Father Lawrence, “is your annual visit over already...?
A young woman. A calculated act. The close knit bond of extraordinary women leading ordinary lives. True is a stunning tale, which beautifully weaves these dynamic characters and their pristine wild environment, their families and the animals they love, into what undoubtedly becomes a story one will never forget. “A lesson in healing, strength and courage, and above all, the magnificence of true friendship."