Nazaire wandered the main road in Edmonton. He hoped to sit someplace quiet and think while Raoul sought the general mercantile for pipe tobacco. He stood at the entrance of an odd church with its splayed roof and onion dome. Ukrainian, someone said. Whatever God he found inside, it didn’t matter.
Horses bellowed in the road, their hooves echoing closer as Nazaire turned toward the commotion. Behind him, a priest in elaborate dress held a wooden cross, followed by menfolk who walked up the steps of the weather-beaten church. They carried a child’s wooden coffin. To his left, men dismounted from horse and buggies. They formed a long line with women and children behind. Bells rang from the church tower as horses shuffled in the dusty road.
Nazaire backed up into the curve of the outside wall, then gave way to the men and clasped his hands at his waist. He bowed his head when a small coal of anger sparked in his chest. Clenched fists painted his palms white. The coal turned to rage and filled his chest with quick heaves. Some of his nails broke skin.
Nazaire closes his eyes when he hears the bells. He is six in the forest with his mother. They hold cut wood in their arms. The hollow sound of an ax against a tree echoes in the calm morning while the scent of pine oil hangs in the air, clean and bright. The village Monseigneur rides by in his carriage with the warning bell of his surrey breaking the morning calm. Nazaire’s mother stops and with bowed head, kneels quick-like in the slush mud until the Monseigneur passes. Nazaire does not.
The top chunk of wood slides in his grasp and his hips sway as he fails to catch it. He fights for purchase in the icy road, and fumbles. He looks up to see the holy man’s face; a scowl where his lips should be. The horse stops, hesitates, then breaks into a lazy gait.
The Monseigneur throws a fierce grimace first to Nazaire, then to his mother.
The pallbearers lowered the coffin at the entrance steps. The priest pried open the cover and placed a bowl of porridge drizzled with honey on top, the sin eater’s offering for the child’s soul.
Tears spilled down Nazaire’s face as his hands uncurled. The knot in his belly loosened. He crossed the street, wiping his eyes before rejoining Raoul. They arrived this morning on the easy-walking gravel road, the first of its kind in the prairies. Their feet much approved with the fine sized stones.