third order

september 07

The Sycamore Street Anchoress

by Fred McGavran

     Neither a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, an appointment as the first woman chair of the psychology department at City University, or a failed marriage had prepared Alicia Spencer for the vestry of the Downtown Church of Our Savior.  

    Stymied by the conservatism and self-absorption of its members, the church’s governing body was the only venue where her skills in small group dynamics failed her.  The meeting to discuss the location of the new columbarium had gone into predictable paralysis: nobody wanted to change anything; every proposal was rejected as an insult to tradition; nothing could possibly be done.

      “What about the cloister garden?” she finally suggested to break the impasse.

      Charles Spears, the Rector, glanced at her with the same expression of astonishment and pain as when she had described her former husband’s infidelity.  Early sixties, gray hair, worn suit and frayed clerical collar, Spears had coaxed her through the bitter wrangling and endless legal procedures just before frustration and rage strangled her.

      “If we used biodegradable containers, they could return to the earth,” Alicia continued recklessly, imagining herself as bone meal slowly mingling with the tulip bulbs until they thrust out of the ground into the spring sun.

      “That sounds like one of those awful Hollywood cemeteries, dear,” huffed Dorothy Ames, who was to endow the venture.  Eighty-year-old features elegantly resurfaced by the finest foundation and blush, she dominated the vestry with her painted eyebrows, acrylic fingernails and hundred million-dollar fortune. 

      “We’d have to move the Anchoress,” added Marion Devorest, the dandruffy septuagenarian Senior Warden.  “And that just isn’t done.”

      For the first time since Dr. Spencer was elected to the vestry, there was total silence.  Still wearing the conservative suit and too-bright scarf of the recently divorced professional woman, she felt as helpless as when the lawyers were snarling over the property division.

      “I’m sorry, Charles,” she said, turning to the Rector.  “I’ve only been going here five years.  I just don’t know what you’re talking about.”

      She was as fragile and exhausted as when she had first come to him after everything she had trusted had failed her.

      “Sister Agnes,” Spears replied gently, as if they discussed religious recluses at all their meetings.  “The Anchoress.  The cloister garden is hers.  She lives there.”

      The forty-one year old psychologist was infuriated by the way they could manipulate her through her ignorance of their customs, like a gullible anthropologist ridiculed by her subjects in an incomprehensible language.  She was the first reform candidate elected to the vestry since 1968, but she could never accomplish anything.  Whatever she said, Mrs. Ames or Marion Devorest impaled it on some long revered tradition or told how that very thing had been tried thirty years earlier with disastrous results.  Even more frustrating to her as a professional, she could never tell which concerns were real and which were the products of group suggestion.

      “She has a one room cottage in the garden,” Devorest tried to explain.  “She’s a – what would you call it, Dorothy?”

      “A hermit,” Mrs. Ames said with the lilt of a seven-year old showing off a new dress to her grandfather.  “Remember the game we used to play when we were children, Marion?”

      “‘Ask the anchoress!’” the old man laughed.  “Wasn’t it fun?”

      “I asked her if I should marry Taylor, and she told me yes.”

      “I asked her if I should go into the Army, and she said no!” Devorest cried.

      The ancients were carried away by their memories.

      “Then why haven’t I seen her?” demanded Dr. Spencer.

      “Oh, nobody ever sees her, dear,” Mrs. Ames said, returning to the present.  “We just knelt by the niche in the garden wall and wrote our questions on little pieces of paper.”

      “Her hearing must be failing,” Devorest explained.

      “And she whispered her answer through the garden wall,” Mrs. Ames concluded, clapping her hands together.

      “It’s not just the children, Alicia,” the Rector added.  “People ask her to pray for them.  No one has ever been disappointed.”

      “I wish I had known that,” the psychologist said, remembering the agony that had driven her to the church after psychotherapy and law had failed.

      “We could never turn her garden into a grave yard, could we, Charles?” Mrs. Ames asked.

      The Rector did not answer; he was watching Alicia Spencer struggle with her frustration.  He said the closing prayer, declined Mrs. Ames’ invitation to attend her and the Senior Warden for cocktails at the club across the street and walked them to the door.  It was nearly dark outside, and the October wind had turned cold.  When he returned to the vestry room, the psychologist was still seated at the long table.

      “Just once, Charles, I wish someone here would tell me what is real and what is not,” she said bitterly.

      “I’m not the person,” he replied, sitting down across the table from her.  “I’ve been here too long.”

      During the long agony of her divorce, people had delighted in confiding all the women her husband had slept with during their marriage, as if belated knowledge of past betrayals could help her endure the present.  Dr. Spencer couldn’t stand it any longer.

      “I want to see her tonight!” she exploded.

      Spear walked around the table to her.

      “We’d have to give her some notice, Alicia,” he said.  “You can’t just break in on an anchoress.”

      The psychologist had the oddest feeling he wanted to touch her to comfort her, but was afraid to violate another unwritten rule.

      “Isn’t there anything you can show me to prove she’s really there?” she pleaded.

      “Come with me into the church.”

      She followed the Rector to the dark narthex. 

      “Shouldn’t we turn on a light?”

      “You can’t see it if the lights are on,” he replied.

      He opened the doors and led her into the nave. Colorless, the figures in the stained glass windows were suspended like huge grave rubbings on the walls.

      “Her cottage is right on the other side,” the Rector whispered, pointing to the wall under St. Thomas.  “There. Do you see it?”

      “I can’t see anything.”

      “Just look, Alicia.”

      She stared at the dark wall until a tiny glow appeared just on the edge of perception beneath the unbelieving apostle.

      “It’s her candle,” the Rector said.  “She hears the services through that little opening in the wall.”

      The psychologist felt her world rolling away beneath her, like the day her husband came home from the office, offered her a glass of wine and said he was leaving her to marry his paralegal.

      “Charles, I think I should come back tomorrow,” she said, turning away. 

      The Rector followed her into the narthex.

      “How long has she been there?” Alicia asked as they walked to the street door.

      “The earliest mention of her is in a service leaflet in 1917.”

      “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed.  “She can’t still be alive.”

      “Come back tomorrow and see,” said the Rector. 

      The Rector, as usual, was late.  Dr. Spencer had been waiting in the alley between the cloister garden and the Civic Auditorium for twenty minutes.  The iron gate was locked; all she could see between the bars was a bench beneath the sycamore tree and a few leaves curled up on the path.  Frustrated, she picked up a leaf.  The brown veins ran together at the base like the veins in an old woman’s wrist.  Alicia shuddered.  The three lobed leaf was almost exactly the size of her own hand.

      Turning around, she saw Mr. Spears approaching with a large key.

      “The street used to be lined with them,” the Rector said, looking up at the ancient sycamore.  “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

      All Dr. Spencer saw was a leafless old tree.

      “Here. Let me show you something,” he said, leading her down the alley.

      At the end of the cloister, where the cottage roof overhung the wall, was a small window, like the opening in a confessional.

      “This is what Dorothy Ames and Marion were talking about,” he said.  “This is where they come with their prayers.”

      The psychologist tried to imagine four generations pushing little pieces of paper through that window and waiting to hear the ancient voice whisper her reply.  The window was closed from inside by a board, like a bank teller’s cage after hours.

      “I’m anxious to meet her,” Dr. Spencer said.

      Charles Spears led her back to the gate and inserted the key in the lock.  To the psychologist’s surprise, it turned easily, and the gate swung inward without a creak.  She followed him inside.

      Except for the leaves, the garden had been cleaned out for winter.  Several plastic lawn bags lay beside the gate, as if the gardener had just gone inside for a moment before finishing up.

      “Before they built the Auditorium, it was like being in the country here,” Spears said.  “All you could see was the church on one side and the sky on the other.”

      Dr. Spencer looked at the gray concrete back of the Civic Auditorium, the venue of choice for country western and second-string rock groups visiting the city for a night.  West, across Sycamore Street, was a high-rise office tower.  Streaming through the church, the afternoon sun emblazoned St. Thomas on his window.

      The Rector sat down on the bench and stared at the gravel path.  For a moment the psychologist pitied him more than she pitied herself.  Another veil was about to be lifted, another illusion dispelled.  How many more before alcohol or depression overwhelmed him, and his remaining faith was dissipated in a last frenzy of frenetic proclamations and purposeless causes?

      “You don’t want to do this, do you, Charles?” she asked, hoping he would say no, leave Dorothy Ames and Marion Devorest with their memories.  Let’s go away somewhere, just the two of us, and . . .

      “We should go in now,” he said, but he did not get up.

      She was filled with sorrow for the aging priest and the tiny space with its imaginary inhabitant.

      “It’s so small,” she said.

      “Oh, no,” he replied.  “The whole universe is in here, everything that exists.”

      He stood up.

      “You don’t see that yet, Alicia, but you will.”

      The curtains were drawn over the cottage window, but the latchstring was out.  Spears pulled it gently, the door swung back, and something shapeless as fog enshrouded them.  Gasping, Alicia stepped back. Like a dying breath, nine decades of prayers poured over the priest and the suppliant.  Alicia closed her eyes and put her hands over her face, like the time she was caught by the California surf and rolled to the beach like a toy.  Then the waves receded and she lowered her hands.  Thousands of little papers billowed around them.

      Then she knew there was no Sybil hanging upside down in the sacred cave, taunting visitors with their torments and complaining about immortal life.  There were only the hopes and unanswered prayers of four generations, written and printed and scrawled and shoved through the tiny window, and the only answer was the rustling of the papers, as impenetrable and meaningless as the speech of leaves.

      The Rector took her hand and they went inside together, wading through the prayers like children in the shallows.  On one side, beneath the opening to the church, the paper surf had exposed the top of a kneeler.  Beside it was a candle on a lamp stand.

      “Oh!” the priest gasped and stopped suddenly.

      He had bumped into something.  Like a man walking in the dark, he felt ahead. 

      “It’s her table,” he said.

      Brushing the prayers aside, he uncovered most of the tabletop.  Something black poked out at the side.

      “Oh, my God,” Alicia whispered, expecting to see a mummified hand.

      Like an archeologist sifting through sand, Spears carefully moved the prayers aside.  Through half closed eyes, the psychologist watched a black tube emerge.

      “It’s her napkin,” the priest said.

      “But where is she?” Dr. Spencer wondered.

      Spreading their arms, they swept aside the prayers until an iron bed rail appeared.

      “She’s there,” Alicia whispered, imagining she saw the outline of a body in the shapeless paper mass.  “Shouldn’t we call someone?”

      The priest didn’t answer.  Instead he lifted the prayers in great armfuls and threw them across the room.  Once, when she was little, Alicia’s grandfather had taken her to his workshop and let her watch him shape a table leg on a lathe.  When her mother saw the wood curls and sawdust on her dress, she was very angry.

      The Rector moved faster and faster, then stepped back.  The bed was empty.  In the center, carefully folded, was the anchoress’ worn gray blanket.

      “She hasn’t been here for years,” the psychologist exclaimed.  “It’s all a hoax, a fraud.”

      The Rector ran his hand over the fresh linen on the bed.

      “Of course she isn’t here,” he said.

      “And all those people who believed?” Dr. Spencer demanded.  “What about them?”

      The Rector picked up one of the pieces of paper and handed it to her.

      “Here.  You read it.  I left my glasses in my study.”

      Alicia stared at the boilerplate script.

      “‘Should I marry Taylor Ames?’” she read slowly.  “It’s signed, ‘Dorothy’.”

      Again she felt the world falling away.  How could she understand a mystery that receded like a mirage the closer she approached?  All around her billowed the prayers of the Downtown Church of Our Savior.  Rising with the ocean spray into the brilliant sky, she saw herself and the priest like children at the seashore, who do not want the long, lovely day to end. 

      “What shall we do with all these?” she finally said.  “We can’t just let them blow away.”

      The Rector did not answer. 

      “I know!” she exclaimed and shuffled outside.

      In a minute she was back with the lawn bags.

      “Help me with this, Charles,” she said.

      By the time the priest had to leave for Evening Prayer, they had bagged the prayers of the Downtown Church of Our Savior. 

      “‘The Prayer Project’,” Marion Devorest read the next item on the vestry’s agenda.  “What’s that?”

      “We’re going to publish the prayer requests to the anchoress,” Dr. Spencer said.  “I’ve talked with several people at the university.  It’s the most remarkable collection of its kind in the country.”

      For the first time, no one immediately contradicted her.

      “I discovered the oddest thing,” the psychologist continued.  “Most of the prayers are signed.”

      “Of course they are, dear,” said Mrs. Ames.  “The anchoress always made us write our names on them.  Do you remember why, Marion?”

      “So the next time we came, she could show us how our last prayer had been answered.”

     “Alicia, why don’t you tell them how you’re organizing the book,” the Rector suggested.

      The psychologist imagined a golden chain linking the generations in the church, not like huge quilts embossed with the names of the dead, but with the answered prayers of the living. 

      “I’m sorting them by date, subject matter, and the age and sex of the petitioner.  It’s easy to classify the ones from the war years and about polio in the fifties, but the ones about marriage and teenagers and illness and money are very difficult to date.”

      “Those are universals,” Spears agreed.

      “What was the earliest?” wondered Marion Devorest.

      “Was you mother’s name Dora?” Alicia asked him


      “And your father was Marion, too, wasn’t he?”

      “Yes.  Why?”

      “I thought so.  Then the earliest is your mother’s prayer for your father’s safe return from France in World War One.”

      “And the last?” asked Charles Spears.

      “Whether the Rector should let me into the garden.”

      The Rector flushed.  She did not read who had signed that one.

      “You missed one,” Dorothy Ames teased them.  “I asked her where to put the columbarium.”

      “And?” Alicia asked.

      “Wherever we thought right,” she laughed.  “She said it was time we decided things for ourselves.” 

      “It was time for her to move on,” the Rector said.

      Marion Devorest was disconsolate.

      “She’s been so much a part of the place.  What will we do without her?”

      “Maybe it’s time we talked more with each other,” the psychologist suggested.  “And don’t worry, Marion.  All will be well.”

      “All will be well?” the Senior Warden repeated, starting to revert to his philosophy of immobility.  “How can you be so sure?

      She remembered standing in the tiny cottage with the prayers swirling round her like a child wading in the surf.

      “Just a little more faith, Marion,” Alicia Spencer replied.  “And all manner of things will be well.”


Fred McGavran is a lawyer in Cincinnati, Ohio. He won the Raymond Carver Award from Humboldt State University and placed first in the John Reid/ Tom Howard contest. His stories have appeared in the mainstream and small press.

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© 2007 Karen Osborne. This story copyright 2007 by Fred McGavran. Design by Andreas Viklund.