Salt and Light

Salt and Light by Gabrielle Hovendon

When the granaries go, they send up a flood of light so intense we wear sunglasses indoors all morning. We draw the curtains and look for blindfolds while brightness spears up from the ground like fencing foils. The whole horizon is brittle with light.

After lunch, we go up to the rooftop and squint out at the city, at the hard lines of light still rising from the skyline like clock hands.

“That’s ten,” Sister Mary Gloria says. “Eleven if you count the dockyards, which I do.”

For forty days we’ve watched our city vanish in these bursts of light: the bike shops, bakeries, and preschools; the law offices, high rises, funeral homes, and walkups; the houses of Republicans and the toolsheds of stamp collectors; the rectories, mosques, porn shops, train depots, and tollbooths. Heatless, silent, random, the light comes without warning and leaves behind no rubble, no ash, and no bones. When it fades, all that remains are tree stumps, concrete foundations, bleached bare roadways.

“Eleven buildings since Sunday,” Sister Mary Gloria says. “It’s speeding up, Nina.”

“It’s still on the other side of the city,” I say. “It’s still far enough away.”

I’m thinking, this is a lesson in faith. This is the kind of thing I came to St. Lucia’s to learn. I’d applied for a retreat, an unattached woman in her mid-thirties who’d already tried cats and careers and boyfriends and come to the conclusion that prayer was the only avenue left. I’d been hoping—not even to find what I was looking for—but to figure out what that was.

On my application, I wrote that my life has been like flypaper without enough stickiness: nothing catches, nothing stays for long. I showed up before the mailboxes and parking meters began to vanish in match strikes of light, before the planes were going up and never returning, trying to find some sort of purpose. Now the runways are unspooling into white twine and all the roads to my hometown have vanished. For all I know, I could be standing in the last city left on earth.

Sister Mary Gloria’s fingers slide along her rosary beads.

“They’re not all so far away,” she says. “What about the deli last week? The bus stop on Cedar?”

“Exceptions,” I say. “It could be stopping. It could be changing direction.”

“It’s not stopping,” Sister Mary Gloria says. “It’s only going to get worse. The reverend mother won’t change her mind, and we’ll all die here.”

But I’ve been keeping my own tally, drawing my own conclusions. It’s been three weeks since the satellite towers vanished in a spray of light that left the city looking like an over-exposed photograph. Twenty days since the boxcars went up like beads on a broken necklace. A fortnight since the highways became white ribbon, since the capitol building evaporated in bright columns. There’s been no word from any of the tens of thousands of people who fled, no word from any other cities or towns. Among the nuns, there are rumors that nothing remains beyond the city limits, rumors that after the streets spread into fields there is nothing but light, light saturated in light.

The reverend mother thinks that we too could become light, weightless and radiant, that our every human imperfection could sublimate into something pure and bright. Last week I saw a savings bank shiver into fractals and blind a pair of children, so I’m inclined to think in less numinous terms.

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A graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, Gabrielle Hovendon has taught in New York, Ohio, and Spain. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Cincinnati Review, Southwest Review, Redivider, Tupelo Quarterly, and Ninth Letter. She lives and teaches in Athens, Georgia.