Their delicious late lunch of bratwurst, sauerkraut, rye bread, and light beer had come to an end. Megan pushed her chair back from the table with a scraping noise on the scratched wood floor. “It’s now or never.” The next morning they would be leaving.
“Do you mind going up there by yourself?” Alex asked. “My feet are killing me.” His new walking shoes had proven to be too tight. “Besides, I’ve seen enough churches.” Together, they’d visited at least ten cathedrals and chapels on this trip — on Alex’s part, because of an appreciation for history and beautiful architecture, not because of any heartfelt belief.
“I’ll be fine by myself.” Surely there’d be other tourists.
Megan and Alex had been in Hallstatt for two days, staying at an old hotel with high-ceilinged suites overlooking one of Austria’s deepest, most beautiful lakes. From their balcony, they could see mist-shrouded mountains encircling this lake, casting mysterious shadows along its banks. Upon their arrival, the couple had taken a boat ride showcasing the exquisite village. They’d held hands — hers rough and red from a bout of eczema; his strong and clasping. Occasionally, he’d let go to take pictures of clustered wood-frame chalets, snow-covered peaks rising above them, the bridge over a half-hidden lagoon. In between, he had picked her hand right back up.
They left the rathskeller, and Alex went to sit on a bench by a burbling fountain in the village’s square. Megan left him, long legs stretched out, sunlight beaming down on his brown, wavy hair, eyes closed. This trip had been a welcome break for both of them. Several months before, Alex had taken over his father’s Seattle surgical practice, with its benefits and responsibilities. Megan loved teaching first grade, but twenty-five children could often be demanding. They’d been married at his parents’ country club (with a judge friend officiating) five years before, and hadn’t vacationed since a short honeymoon in Vancouver, Canada. In addition to a rejuvenating change of scenery, they hoped that this time away might result in what they wanted most: to start their family.
* * *
Walking away from the square on the village’s one road, Megan searched dense foliage covering the hillside for a way up to the church. After what amounted to a couple of blocks, she found a door-size opening in the leaves with the beginning of a moss-covered stairway. No signs indicated that this was the right place, but she decided to take a chance. Making the first zigzag, she wondered, Will I stumble into someone’s yard? Climbing and swerving and climbing some more, her breathing became labored. There must have been at least a hundred steps. With each blind curve, she doubted whether this was the correct way. Should I turn back?
At last, her trek led to the parish cemetery’s rock-bordered graves. These plots closed in near to the church, with barely a few inches of space unoccupied. Megan tiptoed through them, each planted with red geraniums that looked like splotches of blood. She’d read that over two centuries before, because of limited land atop this hill, and in order to make room for more bodies, each one was kept in its grave for only about ten years. Before burying a newcomer, an existing plot had to be dug up. The former resident’s bones were bleached in the sun and stored in the adjacent Charnel House.
These graves didn’t bother her too much. Since she was 6 years old, Megan had, on many occasions, visited the cemetery where her mother was buried, often alone. Still, relief enveloped her when she arrived at the doors to the small church that towered over the village. As expected, they were unlocked. She stepped inside, stopped for a few seconds, and took in traces of incense while her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She dipped her fingers into a marble font and crossed herself with holy water. Feeling like an intruder because she had broken so many rules, at the same time her heartbeat and breathing steadied, her shoulders softened, like resting in her mother’s arms when distraught over a friend’s rebuke, a criticism from a teacher, ripping a favorite blouse. She was often drawn to a Catholic church, like an anxious patient prescribed Valium the night before surgery.