All Souls Day

by Susan Firer

All Souls Day was the night
plenary indulgences were up for grabs
until midnight.  (Plenaries
remitted "All the temporal
punishment due on the sins.")  On All
Souls Day you could earn them for others.
One of the conditions required to acquire
plenary indulgences was: "that one be free
from every venial sin."  (this is trickier
than it sounds, because once you know
you are not allowed one bad thought,
they all just flood in: naked teachers, 
forbidden words, acts of vengeance.)
There was a prayer formula: a certain number 
of Our Father's, Glory Be's, Hail Mary's
said, and you released a soul from Purgatory.
"Not that OUR family has any souls in purgatory,"
she always told me, "Just to be safe."
I pictured souls like Mary Martin's
Peter Pan shadow, but able to solo fly.
I saw them white, peacock ore iridescent.
It was always on November 2.  (All Souls Day 
is not a Movable Holy Day like the feast
of Corpus Christi, Ascension Day or Trinity
Sunday.)  The church was always huddled in prayer,
(always more women than men) kneeled
in the pews' kneelers' leather give, like flesh
islands in the great, floating continent church.
At all times a few people coughed.
And the church was always beautifully candlelit,
votives lit like wishes at the plaster feet of saints
in every hidden church corner.  The Host
would be out on the altar in gold
sun-ray monstrance, looking like the pure eye of God.
Thick incense swung from the thurible
was everywhere.  (I was convinced it was God's own
breath that I whispered and coughed through.)
Tired from Daylight
Savings Time and school; I'd try to use school:
"Can't we go?  I have school tomorrow!"
But she wouldn't even pause.  She'd just 
keep saying her prayers, her lips moving silently,
like she was lip synching the Supremes or Martha
Reeves and The Vandellas, the whole while elbowing
elbowingandpinching me to keep me
awake until midnight when the prayers would no longer
trade out souls.  I was telling my Catholic friend
about all of this and she said,
"We don't believe in that anymore."
I said, "All Souls Day?"
She said, "No, purgatory."
And I was   pissed,   really angry:
All those All Souls Days on my knees,
praying impossibly
hard, praying until I floated my child body,
praying until the whole church glowed,
praying myself limp.  After hours
of prayer, when people finally left the church
no one's knees would straighten;
everyone's knees clicked like tumblers in 
lock combinations, and everyone limped
out of church, crippled with prayer
and from dancing with the dead in snow
and incense, and candlelight, and I
just want to know, anyway, now
where do those who are not pure enough
for heaven, but not bad enough
for hell, and unbaptized babies
and all those who we were once 
taught stopped over in purgatory,
where do they go?  And, further, 
what happens to a place, say a family, a marriage,
or purgatory when no one believes in it any longer?
But possibly, just maybe, the souls
of people you were or once loved but were
too young to pray out might still be,
just might be, trapped copper beautiful there,
waiting for cold-lipped prayer litanies
to float them scallop white all the way to heaven.

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