Old Church by the Sea

By Peg Alford Pursell

I hadn’t visited the abandoned church by the sea in many years, not since that day with my teenage daughter. She’d reached that age of awkwardness, so painful to see, when people had begun telling her to calm down, to lower her voice, to walk, not run. I’d brought her to this confused Eden, huge boulders in the garden, cold shadows, the infinite space of sun.

Sad jasmine crawled everywhere, even over the dilapidated fence deteriorating as if the weight of the flowers had caused its demise. I’d imagined we would run and play as in a game of tag, like we had when she was younger, as if we were two butterflies in the tall grass.

She wore dark glasses and sat on a stone bench where a white cat lay sleeping. I didn’t dare believe she was looking at me behind those lenses. Her chin tilted up, and I decided she was examining the distant countryside: yellow grass spread with repeated cows, the bay a shimmering backdrop of monotony. A quick wind stroked my bare arms and prodded dark clouds across the sky. It began to rain.

We made the long drive home in silence, her earbuds in place, the tinny chords of her music reaching me behind the wheel. We neared the close-by village, where at the street corner, under the overhang of the roof of the grocery mart, a group of five men sat as if hypnotized. My daughter’s head abruptly swiveled, stayed fixed in their direction until we made the turn and left them behind.

How the imagination can forge something from a moment!

Here now the burning light of day rested in all its blue brilliance on the remaining stained glass window of the church, miraculously still intact. The sun bleached only the tips of the wild grasses, while closer to Earth darkness churned like sea reeds. Heavy clouds clung to the distant hills speckled with their animals.

Inside the old church it was almost possible to hear what people do to one another. I always think I’ll circle around to the exact explanation for what went wrong.

Having and wanting at the same time, that’s what it was to carry my daughter inside me. After, I was emptier than I could ever have imagined, I thought then. Then, when I thought I would have the chance to tell her one day.


Peg Alford Pursell is the author of the forthcoming book of stories, Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow. Her work has been published in or forthcoming from VOLT, RHINO, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, among others, and shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor Award. She curates Why There Are Words, a reading series she founded six years ago in Sausalito, and is the founding editor of WTAW Press, an independent publisher of exceptional literary books. You can find her online at www.pegalfordpursell.com.