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City of Mary

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 3, 2013
pp. 50-70 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0067

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Simon started to tell Anny about the suitcase, but then they were stopped in the street by the Holy Mother carried on the shoulders of twenty men. Every old church in Seville had an icon, and Simon knew that the icons were carried around the city during the springtime Feria, but it was a surprise to meet one on a mid-December evening. Men in red velvet robes embroidered with gold led the procession carrying tall, elaborate silver staves topped with crosses and candles. Members of the church came behind in a silent crowd. Then more men in robes. More candles. Censers thickly smoking. Boys in brown tunics like friars. More candles. Then a platform upheld by ten men on each side, with a life-size Virgin kneeling atop in ornate regalia.

Simon was a tall man, big-gutted against his white button-down and jeans. Anny, his wife, was a smaller, thinner person who stood with her shoulders rared back, her head ducked forward, wearing bright coordinates of purple and green. She had been gone for two weeks, and Simon had just met her at the airport. On the bus into the city she had talked of things she’d felt nostalgic for while she was gone. The olive-oil-fried potato chips. The little friendly nuns at the convent who sold jams. She seemed to want to say more but couldn’t come up with anything. She grabbed Simon’s hand and held it with an unusual urgency as they walked from the bus stop. When they met the Virgin, he had been saying, “I was asked to hold a suitcase for someone. So when you see it, that’s why there’s an old suitcase in the living room.” Then he noticed people stopping and standing aside.

The Virgin looked fairly lifelike but with skin white and glossy and too perfect. She seemed enormously heavy: the men shouldering her moved with small, shuffling steps that hissed in unison. When they had passed, Anny tugged Simon onward. “One day you’re chuffed by god, so you have his baby,” she said, “and two thousand years later they’re still parading you around for it.” This was mischievousness. Her humor.

“Not just any baby, I suppose,” he said.

“You never do know how they’re going to turn out,” Anny said.

He pulled her bag on small wheels that clattered over the cobbles. The handle wrenched itself back and forth in his hand. They crossed on a slant through a plaza lined with trees filled with green oranges turning slowly orange. When ripe, they would be inedibly bitter but useful for marmalade or perfume essences. In the center of the plaza a vendor with a two-wheeled cart roasted chestnuts in a metal cylinder that threw up enormous quantities of smoke and a thick odor. At the city hall, the Sevillanos stood around the block with quiet and weirdly well-behaved children waiting to see a crèche, which in Spanish was a belén. All over the city were paper signs with arrows pointing toward this belén, that belén, another belén, beléns in every church and civic structure.

Simon unlocked the lobby door. He grunted, lifting Anny’s bag to the second floor. The key in the apartment door lock always required a moment of jostling before it turned, and it bothered him that he couldn’t figure out the particular mechanics of the problem: sometimes it seemed to require turning while pushing up, and sometimes it seemed to require turning with torque on an oblique axis. Inside, one large room contained the kitchen, dining room and living space, with a French balcony at the far end. A short hallway at the other end led to the apartment’s single bathroom and bedroom. The bathroom had a shower stall as narrow as an upright coffin. Simon pointed out the suitcase in a corner where an arm of the sofa obscured it. “One of the girls staying with the German left it,” he said. “She didn’t want to leave it with the German, for some reason.”

“I bet the German...

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