blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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World without End

They came to us from over the lake. Voices transmitted through the buzz of radio, carried through stations that were never quite clear, except during storms or certain times of night, the ionosphere thinning, allowing sound to sweep down from Ontario. Even then, the repetition caused the words to meld into a hum so that the women saying the Rosary sounded like nothing so much as a rush of insects.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

The persistent press of prayer was like something out of Rosemary’s Baby, so that I sometimes thought of Mia Farrow’s neighbors gathering in hooded robes and chanting spells as I listened. I imagined the Rosary-reciters in dark habits, crosses gripped to their chests as they kneeled on uncarpeted floor, a circle of black birds forming a sort of rosary of their bodies, black beads of supplication.

Sometimes the voices came in French—Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâce—and not understanding the words, and the sound of them, lusher and looser in the mouth, lent the French Rosaries an even greater sense of mystery.

They were with us always, the Rosary ladies. We might not hear them for a year, but then there they’d be again—in our car as we traveled along the New York State Thruway, coming from a portable radio inside the old house in Albion, following us as we moved onto the reservation near Batavia, into the motel room and apartments that followed, eventually landing with us on the tiny dead-end street in a crowded Rochester neighborhood.

My sisters and brothers might listen a bit before turning the dial in search of music, and I must have sneered at the sound, never revealing how drawn I was to the swoop of prayer pushing east from Erie or Buffaloeven Cleveland, I supposefor what is the rust belt but a bastion for Catholics?

No one I knew ever said them together, the Rosary prayers, excepting mothers, of course, who met in groups, in churches or living rooms, carrying strands of beads, some wooden, others crystal or seed pearl. My mother’s fervor ebbed and flowed, but when it flowed, her Catholicism came in scapular-filled waves, her eyes taking on new light as she delved into stories of visitations and healings and water becoming wine. The Rosary was pure delight, high drama and joint meditation fused onto delicate strands, more appealing than the latest television miniseries or ripest bit of gossip.

The best rosaries came from cathedrals far away, Paris or Rome. These were practically impossible in my neighborhood, but a few women from church had them, and how proud they were of their foreign crucifixes and filigreed strings. Others came from the dead, handed down from mothers and great-aunts, the sheen of history absolving the dullness of the beads. Most, though, were fashioned of glass and came from the shrine near Niagara Falls with an oversized Virgin reigning from atop a giant Plexiglas globe.

But no matter where from or from what material, the women took up their rosaries and prayed for relief from bad knees and lost husbands, for better pay, for difficult bosses, for the bishop, the pope, and all the saints in heaven. They prayed for upcoming surgeries, full recoveries, for the end of trouble in Northern Ireland and the fall of communism, and thought nothing of following up such lofty intentions with requests for cures from chronic eczema or infected mosquito bites. They prayed for good weather, for weight loss, for help with the electric bill. For difficult children, the resurrection of the dead, for life everlasting and the world without end. Amen.

But the voices on the radio were something other than mothers, something without beginning or end, a channel occasionally opening to us, an otherworldly hum looming larger than the sounds of home. Whether the transmission came from a motherhouse in Quebec or a retreat house in Lockport, a single voice called out the first line: Hail Mary, full of Grace, followed by the swarm of response: The Lord is with thee. The lone voice: Blessed art though amongst women. The amalgam of voices: And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

The words came and came, the prayers taking on forward motion, barreling over the space between womb and Jesus, the freight of the line gathering its own speed and rhythm, thywombjesus, as if Jesus were the organ and not the fruit, as if he were the one whose womb were to be blessed. And what place did meaning have anyway? It was a poetry of sorts, tapping into wells beneath the surface, hitting a place beyond the reach of words.

It was this that bore down upon me as I listened. Whether in English: Holy Mary, Mother of God. Or French: Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu. The radio voices pushed through the ancient curtain of words—the Hail Marys and the Glory Bes—the prayers themselves not so much the point as the speaking of them together and aloud: Now, and at the hour of our death. The murmuring a medicine: And blessed is the fruit of thywombjesus. Until, at the end of each decade, the women paused for a moment, allowing themselves a collective breath before opening their mouths to begin again.  end  

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