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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"Reject absolutely all divination, fortune-telling, sacrifices to the dead, prophesies in groves or by fountains, amulets, incantations, sorcery (that is wicked enchantments), and all those sacrilegious practices which used to go on in your country."
-Saint Gregory III, to the Germans
"You go see your Aunt Lena. This Sunday. You go have a nice time."
Grandma had spoken in a tone of kindly suggestion, but the way her eyes held my gaze and the urgent bony pressure of her hand on mine made it clear that this was no friendly request. This was an order. It was the kind of order Grandma gave if a relative was dying or in some kind of need. She always knew when death was close, although there was nothing psychic or magical involved in that. Grandma paid attention.
Auntie Lena isn't a blood relative. She's an old family friend who was in good health last I'd heard. Of course, last I'd heard had been almost a year ago. A lot can happen in a year.
Grandma always spoke highly of Auntie Lena, but she wasn't so well regarded by others in the family. My mom worried for Auntie Lena's safety living alone in the city. My brother worried about her soul. Auntie Lena read tarot cards for me when I visited her as a teenager. I suppose she was the witch of the family before I turned pagan and took over the role.
Now I'm something of a lapsed pagan and Auntie Lena, last I'd heard, was back to being a devoted Catholic, and I looked out the bus window at the thin Sunday morning traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike and wondered what we'd have to say to each other.
I'd wasted the last three Sundays. This would make four. Chess Hall and Darren Voort would not be happy. Not that either of them had been having any success in their own searches.
We're looking for the last of three runic pendants, trying to find them before the bad guys, or in this case a particularly bad gal, find them. Darren has one that we'd recovered from a secret compartment in a house in Lowell that had been wrecked by the floods back in June.
I've got the other one. It had been hidden in a wall in the home of an amateur occult investigator in Worcester. Chess Hall had wired me two grand to pay off the former owner of the rune. I just told him I'd gotten the price from an antiques dealer in Florida. Once he saw the cash he didn't ask any more questions.
I thought I knew the location of the third rune. I spent a Sunday in a rental car driving up to New Hampshire to visit Annalee Stephenson, the widow of the last known owner of the third rune. She didn't have it. She'd never seen it. When I reported back to Darren he asked me if I believed her. I told him I did.
So the next Sunday, Darren and Em helped me search the basement of my shop. The former keepers of these runes seemed to love hidden compartments and boxes with false bottoms, and we checked the place inch by inch. We didn't find a thing. Two Sundays down.
Helping Em move into her new apartment took up a third Sunday, and then business picked up at work, and Darren had to go out of town for a week, and the summer just slipped away. Darren had warded my apartment and the store. Em and I helped with the ritual this time. He thought that would make the protection stronger.
I searched online, mostly fruitlessly, for information on the runes while Chess sent me occasional updates on Christina Kenney's movements, or lack thereof, and I found myself getting less and less sleep as the August heat set in.
The bus passed Fenway Park's "Green Monster" and pulled into Boston's South Station a few minutes later. Today was the last Sunday in August, the Feast of Saint Anthony, and I wondered if a day away from Worcester, the store, and all the mysteries, was just what I needed.
I decided to walk to the North End. There was a breeze off the harbor that smelled of trash and salt water, but it made the heat bearable on Atlantic Avenue. I stopped to watch the harbor seals playing in their pool in front of the New England Aquarium and then picked up the line of red bricks that marked the Freedom Trail as it passed by Quincy Market, the must-see tourist trap of downtown Boston.
My only meal had been a donut at the bus station in Worcester, but I resisted the temptation to get glorified food court fare. Somewhere in the North End it was a feast day, and there was a street vendor with an Italian sausage on a bun with grilled peppers and onions that would be well worth the wait.
There were historical buildings scattered around the area: The Old North Church, the house where Paul Revere had lived, and some taverns that made claims of tracing their roots back to the days when the Sons of Liberty debated politics and whispered secrets. Back at my store I'd flipped through historical texts of the Masons in America that traced their roots to some of those same whispered meetings and conversations.
But if the Sons of Liberty and the ancient fraternal orders had once laid claim to the North End, it was now wholly the domain of the Italians. Well, okay. The Italians and the tourists. I smiled at the thought as I saw parents pulling out their wallets as their kids spotted one of the Italian ice vendors.
I was sweating now. My jeans felt damp and heavy and the black Sandman t-shirt that seemed the perfect fashion statement in the cool of the morning felt like it was beginning to cook. I walked faster. There would be shadows in the narrow streets of the North End, and the cobblestones and bricks didn't hold the heat the way the asphalt did.
I finally got my Italian sausage and a cold lemonade over by the bandstand on Endicott Street, where the strings of lights were wrapped around the lampposts and doorways like it was Christmas. Auntie Lena lived at the end of a little side street that looked down on the Feast. I was early. She was expecting me for dinner and it was only a little after one in the afternoon. I moved through the crowd, listening to a singer doing a karaoke Rat Pack tribute while I ate my lunch and then got out my notebook. I'd written down the addresses of a couple of secondhand bookshops in the North End. Might as well get a little business done while I had the chance.
A couple of hours later, I returned to Endicott Street with my bag weighed down by a three-volume History of the Archdiocese of Boston and a small illustrated Lives of the Saints from the 1920's. There was a new band on the stage now and they had the crowd singing along to a goofy "Hey, Chris Columbo, turn-a da ship around!" as the shadows lengthened and the carnival smells of sausage and peppers, cotton candy, and beer hung over the crowd in the lingering swelter.
I turned onto the little brick-paved drive and passed a corner bakery open late with people lined up for cannoli out the door.
And it got cold.
I'm big and I'd been sweating a lot in the heat, and I took that first step from the cobblestones onto the bricks and I was aware of every sticky inch of my skin and it all turned clammy cold. The music had stopped, but people were still cheering and yelling and drinking.
I turned around slowly, already sure that I didn't want to stay where I was, but unsure where to run. My hand worked its way into my tight jeans pocket and found the rune pendant. I always kept it on me, just to be sure where it was.
An animal growled from somewhere on my left. A small white dog crouched in a doorway. It fixed its eyes on me with a predatory look I'd seen before. But the cold was something new, an unfathomable sensation that kept me rooted to the spot. I wasn't paralyzed with fear, but I was fighting a curious fascination, a need to see what would happen next.
There was a man moving through the crowd. He was tall and he was dressed all wrong for the heat, and people were getting out of his way. The crowd thinned as he passed untouched. Although I could only see flashes of his movement as the people shifted around him, I knew that there were two dogs walking at his feet, matching his step. They would have the same eyes as the little white dog on the stoop, but these were bigger, pit bulls or something like that.
People parted and cleared the path toward me for the man, all still oblivious to anything but the lights and the drinking and the food.
He was still on the other side of Endicott Street when the crowd erupted in louder cheering, and with that noise the heat swept back into the alley like a wave.
A hand grabbed mine tight, wrinkled, heavy with rings and bracelets.
I had barely the chance to recognize Auntie Lena and then we were moving down the alley at a jog and my one glance back revealed the statue of Saint Anthony its robes adorned with hundreds of dollar bills, surrounded by a throng of revelers that blocked up Endicott Street as they carried the statue in the traditional procession.
"Where the sign of the cross occurs, magic loses its power, and sorcery has no effect."
-Saint Anthony of Egypt, to the Greeks
The plain red-painted door looked like it might have led into an apartment or the back of a shop or restaurant. In fact, it was the side entrance to a small church.
Lena closed it and locked it. She was Grandma's age, but she moved like a young woman, only as out of breath as I was.
She was small, thin. Dressed in a silk blouse and a long skirt, she wore makeup and had dyed the grey that I remembered out of her hair.
"I phoned your grandmother this morning." Her voice was steady, stern. "I told her this was not a good time for you to visit."
"I'm sorry. I must have already left."
"I thought all of you youngsters carried cell phones everywhere they went."
I shrugged. "All but me. I'm too cheap."
That finally got a slight smile out of her.
"So," I asked. "Wanna tell me what's going on?"
She led me to a pew and motioned for me to sit. I reached down and lowered the kneeler and made a quick sign of the cross. Old habits. I noticed that Lena had out her Rosary beads wrapped tight around her hand, and the memories of wakes and funerals came to me then. Old hands wrapped in the Rosary. Growing up in a Catholic family with a lot of old relatives, you get used to seeing that.
"We came here from Montefalcione in nineteen ten, before I was born. Our family settled on Endicott Street, and the families commissioned the Saint Anthony Statue. It took time to make the statue, and then there was the war, and the influenza. The statue came here in nineteen nineteen. That was the year of the first feast and the first procession."
I nodded. My parents took me to the North End for Saint Anthony's Feast a few times when I was growing up, and I'd read up on the history.
But she continued the story with something that wasn't in the history books. "That was the first year the huntsman came to the Feast. My mama told me once that he comes because Saint Anthony helps us find what's lost. But he's not with God, that one."
"Grandma used to tell me to pray to Saint Anthony when I lost an earring or a key."
Lena nodded. "See, the huntsman, Saint Anthony won’t help him, but with so many here calling to find what's lost, the Feast brings him. Only a few of us know about him, of course, and the men never wanted to hear any of this. These stories, they get passed mother to daughter, and if you talk about them too much, then you're a witch and they treat you like you're already dead. At least until they want their cards read or the girls wanna know if the boy they like fancies them."
"Passed mother to daughter. Like the Sight."
"Your grandma finally told you, then?"
I nodded. "This year. At Easter. Your family has it too?"
"I read cards sometimes and they tell me things, but not like your line, Nancy. That's your gift. Well, your daughter's gift if I reckon right. My family knows about things, though. We've always helped when we could."
A door opened somewhere in the darkness behind us.
"Joey Liano. Don’t mind him. He's up to his gills with wine and they let him keep watch here more to keep him out of trouble than to keep out burglars."
There were a few loud footfalls and the door closed again.
"What is this place?" I asked.
"Oh, you didn't know? This is the chapel of the San Antonio Di Padua Da Montefalcion Society. Consider yourself fortunate. It's men-only in here. Their little club. I passed Joey a bottle so he'd unlock the side door and keep his mouth shut after."
I looked up at the carved woodwork of the dimly lit chapel.
"You know why the huntsman is after me."
She bent her head, staring at the Rosary. "No. I know that the huntsman is after you. I don't know why."
I nodded. "It's okay. I know why."
I reached into my pocket and took out the rune pendant and showed it to her.
She took it from me and slipped out of the pew, walking back to the empty shrine that housed the statue of Saint Anthony for every other day of the year, so she could get a better look at the rune in the candlelight. I remembered some more of the history I'd read, about how the feast had been held in good years and bad, how there had been factions and feuds in the society, rivalries with other feasts. This statue wasn't the original one. It had been replaced sometime in the 1930's. The current statue had been sculpted here in Massachusetts, in Charlestown.
"I've seen this mark before." Lena had crept back while I was lost in thought.
"On one of the old fortune-telling cards, I think. It's back at my apartment."
"Can I see it?"
"The hunter. He might still be out there. When they bring back Saint Anthony, we slip out then."
She moved back into the pew, knelt and began to softly pray the Rosary.
"How terrible, I thought, that no act of love is ever made in hell! And I told God that I was ready to go there myself, if it pleased Him to contrive, in that way, that for all eternity there would be one loving soul in that abode of blasphemy."
-Saint Therese De Lisieux
"Pardon, ladies. He's back." Joey regarded Saint Anthony as an old friend who's stepped out for an evening. His words were quiet, a bit slow and deliberate, but not slurred. He smelled slightly of wine and he offered his hand to help Lena stand. Joey was in his forties, thick and round. He stood aside as I got out of the pew and then took a couple of hurried steps to hold the side door for us.
Lena took a look out to the alley and seemed satisfied it was safe. I was just pleased that the air that drifted in was warm with the lingering smell of charcoal, peppers, meat, and onions. Lena kissed Joey on the cheek and took a step out. I stopped her.
"Wait. Tell me where."
She pointed to a doorway a little down the alley and I nodded. I wasn't sure where I'd picked that up, but it made sense. Chess would have asked. Darren would have.
We left together, and slipped into Lena's stairwell without incident. She climbed the stairs ahead of me, stopping only a moment to catch her breath on the landing.
In Lena's kitchen there was homemade pizza on a baking sheet on the stove, cold now. Lena's scissors were laid out on the counter, ready to cut slices for dinner, just the way Grandma would do it. Lena hesitated a second, then crossed the small living area and led me into her bedroom.
"There." She pointed to the bottom drawer of her dresser. It was stuck and I had to put my weight into pulling and shaking it before I worked it loose. Underneath some blankets were wooden cigar boxes. I began to open them. Inside were cards, old playing cards, tarot, some decks secured with hardened rubber bands, others loose. There were torn and creased cards with the classic Rider-Waite artwork, newer decks in boxes from the current crop of new-age publishing companies, decks of playing cards from the casinos down in Connecticut. There were cards yellowed with age, and cards that looked like they were hand-painted. One was even on thin wood instead of cardstock. I was having trouble making out all of the symbols and images in the dim light and I moved over to the bed and began to sort them, spreading them out over the bed as I searched while Lena looked over my shoulder.
We both froze at the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs.
Lena snapped out of it first. "Find what you're looking for. Now, dear."
I stopped trying to sort things into any kind of order. I started throwing down cards wherever there was empty space on the bed.
"Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around…" Lena's voice whispered behind me, "…Something's lost and needs to be found."
Heavy fists pounded on the door as I spotted the rune symbol, Raido the safe travel rune, drawn on a cup placed in an elaborate circle design on a card that didn't seem to match any I'd looked at. The card was the Three of Cups, all three vessels adorned with runes.
"Get out." Lena pointed at the fire escape outside her bedroom window.
"I'm not leaving you." Fists pounded on the door again.
"You have work to do. And it's for us to help." We stood there, each resolved, deadlocked.
"Hey, it's Joey! You two okay?" I nearly fell over onto the bed. It was Joey's voice, no mistaking it. Even Lena seemed to be nearly laughing.
She walked back to the kitchen and I followed. I could tell she was still being cautious. She checked the peephole and then left the chain on the door as she opened it.
Joey stood there, smiling nervously.
"I'm sorry ladies, it's just that I thought I saw someone come in your door and I figured I'd just check and see. You know, feast night. Lotta drunks out and…"
The shadows behind Joey took shape and he flew backward lifted off his feet into the darkness.
"Lock the door!" The last words Joey spoke were half drowned in the snarling of dogs, but he never screamed. Nothing else we heard after Lena slammed the door were sounds from a human throat.
Lena grabbed a crucifix from the wall and stood facing the door, praying in Italian, while I just stood, determined not to abandon her, lost to inaction, paralyzed in the cold, fascinated by the sounds of the feast in the stairwell.
Nothing came through the door. We stood waiting an end that never came, long after everything went silent except for Lena's whispered ave-marias, we stood and waited. It was probably most of the night.
The police decided Joey climbed the stairs drunk, fell and broke his neck. They didn't let us see the body. There was no need, they said. Everyone knew Joey.
Lena told me to call if I needed anything, and when I was saying goodbye, she stopped me and said it again, adding, "Nancy, I mean it. Our duty."
I figured she'd done her duty, just as Joey had done his. The family obligations stretched back through the years, but I still didn't know what my role in all of it was.
Two days later, back in Worcester, I woke in the middle of the night with the prayer to Saint Anthony on my lips and the not-quite faded memory of a dream: A hand reaching into folded cloth, a small lump of metal pressed cold into a palm.
"Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around. Something's lost and needs to be found."
This time I was sure. I knew who had the third rune.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007