The Woman Upstairs

by Iseult Grandjean

Today is like any other hour: A random day in a lazy city. Decay is wafting through the streets, it hasn’t rained in months. There is a morgue-like stench in every corner, garbage bags lying on the streets like wounded animals. But you do not have to look, just like he doesn’t look; he hurries.

Like an urgent need it pulled him out of bed this morning, the sheets still damp from the lonely body in it, every night he lies there and sweats, like an embryo in amniotic fluid. He got dressed, and left the house without coffee or conscience. The route to Urquinaona is a straight line, and from there the road drops off slightly, so that you enter the gothic quarter, without realizing it, like a sort of underworld.

As he‘s standing on the square of Pla de la Seu, he only looks up for a moment, to where the present day is leaning on the eternal. Then he quickens his pace again. He knows where to go — and enters the cathedral almost mechanically. He’s not too surprised or in awe either, not anymore, he’s got used to her beauty, that’s what she’s there for after all, no? He had always liked churches because they gave him the kind of peace he otherwise sought in vain; he had been a nervous kid. He somehow still is.

Our bodies yesterday were cathedrals; because everyone needs a place that is not one’s own to seek absolution. That’s what people really want, salvation at all costs, a relief being handled by the woman upstairs and for which is always paid in the beginning. What came first: religion or prostitution?

He travels down the nave to the altar. A middle-aged woman is sitting in a row of benches, her hair cut short like someone with too many mouths to feed and little time for herself, her hands folded in silent prayer. It does not bother him. It does not bother him that he is not the only one here, even the white noise of the tourists do not disturb him, not them or his own desire. He says his prayer. He waits for redemption. He lights a candle and does not watch it burn.

Whether arches burst or glasses fall, the believer does not care, for him the sacred space is of economic sanctitiy, only a means to an end. Nobody lives in the cathedral, nobody wants to stay, for that it is too holy and too cold. Its whole architecture is about form and not content, a sublime symbol of emptiness. And so every week or whenever he feels a need, history repeats itself: he comes and goes.

After the prayer the faithful runs past her, maybe even lowers his eyes, ashamed almost. Her stained glass windows, the broken beauty of thousands of stars, radiate into the void.

Inside, the cathedral is dark as hell. No matter how many prayers are lost on the old stone walls, they always remain silent. In a small metal cup you can donate for a new roof of the cathedral; nobody wonders how she can withstand it.∎

Photograph: Nun in Orvieto by Jill McDonough