in situ: (adv. or adj.) in the natural or original place
He is like the jeweled light that dances on the sacred floors. I have tried to capture it before, the exact shade of his smile, the hue that sparkles in his laughter. I have tried to piece the glass together in a way that recreates the curl of his hair in the rain.
The most glorious window in the world would not do him justice. But that does not stop me from trying.
I form the feet of the crucifix first, always the feet, pinned to the deep brown shades of the beam, floating above my suggestion of Golgotha with a peculiar anguished grace. I form the feet first because that is where I imagine the color was the deepest, the shadow and the blood.
He does not check on my progress often. I have made a name for myself amongst the stained-glass artists, to be sure, and I usually prefer to be left alone to my work. But the workshop has an empty heat to it without him there, which used to feel like home but now scorches me.
I walk by the cathedral every day to watch as its pieces are maneuvered into place, to watch the vaults of his brilliance take shape. Each day, pale stones, carved and sanded by bloody hands, rise towards the heavens. The mechanics of it all astound me.
He stands and monitors the dance of the beams, or he climbs the scaffold with a muscled ease. He laughs with the masons and the laborers, or he yells that a stone must be shifted before the whole delicate monument comes crashing down around them.
I watch the empty places for the windows take shape, making note of the way they will catch the light.
He deals in wood and stone, in structures that defy the earth and wind. I deal in color and sunbeams, in the scorch of the furnace that turns sand to glass.
After I form the feet and the top of the hill, I piece together the sky. I am careful to follow the shapes I’ve traced, to mix the dyes into the glass with precision. This sky will be shades of violet and gold, interspersed with squares of deep, longing blue.
Some days it feels as though the cathedral has always been, that its skeleton long predated the clumsy homes around it. He took it over when the first architect died of old age. The first architect was a withered man who thought in squares and triangles and uninspired towers.
He thinks in arches, in the graceful shape of collarbones and the curvature of long necks bent into kisses.
The day I finish the last of the sky, he comes in and tells me to stop. There is to be another war, he says, and there will not be enough laborers or lumber or stone.
The cathedral must wait.
We are both too old for war, with gray in our hair and lonely years tucked away in our hearts. We are old, but he is called upon to fight and I am left behind, my bad leg weighing heavily on my conscience, along with memories of the last war.
He told me to stop, but while the world forgets to spin I work on the window and try not to think of his footprints on the bloodstained battlefield.
After the sky is finished, I take a break from the crucifix and design the smaller windows. In one, I craft a dove with silvery feathers. In another, a vibrant tree. I set each image in the deep blue panes of my sorrow and imagine the end of the war.
It is a strange thing to be alone in a time such as this. I sometimes wander down the village streets, avoiding the half-formed flesh of the cathedral. I limp past women and children, nod at the other infirm men who stayed behind. The world is dull, cast beneath a dark grey sky.
We receive little news from the front. We hold our breath, or our families, or our bottles close.
I do not pray. I see no merit in offering my half-cooled shards of hope to a distant Son. There is no god in war, and no glory.
I return to the crucifix after nearly a year. I dye the glass for the broken body, mixing the shade into one that reminds me of him. The arms and legs fall into place quickly and I try not to think of the soldiers who will come home without them.
The panes of glass I fix in place between thin bands of lead called cames. They hold the pieces together, bind each portion of the image as I go. I wish that I could bind the memory of him to myself, if only to cast a glimmer of brightness into this mere existence.
As abruptly as it began, war is over. This is what the villagers say, a whisper passed from neighbor to neighbor under the shadow of the unfinished cathedral. There are new lines to trace on the maps of the world, lines that will surely change again before our lifetimes are done.
No one will tempt fate by rejoicing. Not until the soldiers have come home.
I finally bring myself to visit the cathedral. I begin sweeping leaves and dirt from the scaffolded corners, clearing the way for his return. It feels a meaningless task, but I breathe easier in the ceilingless walls of stone than I do in my workshop.
The villagers take it as an act of worship. Some join me in clearing debris, others offer pious nods as they pass.
Perhaps it is an act of worship, though my reverence is for someone else.
In a slow trickle, the first of the soldiers return. He is not among them. Many of the villagers celebrate, others fold themselves into mourning like a tomb. I am patient and hold hope tightly, but each day I visit the cathedral the stones feel colder. A few of the laborers come by, skin and bones and colorless eyes, asking when the work will resume.
I tell them I do not know.
I save the face of the crucifix for last. I craft the crown of thorns, offset against a golden aureole and dark hair. The face is the hardest, and I realize as I set the eyes—honeyed brown ovals of the clearest glass I’ve ever made—that they look like his eyes. The crucifix is supposed to seem peaceful, serene in sacrifice. Mine weeps, tears of colorless glass and transparent sorrow. I see myself reflected in those tears, full of doubts.
On a warm spring day, one month after the end of the war, he appears in the half-complete cathedral doorway. He is scarred and has forgotten what it is to laugh. But he is back, and my innermost heart sings.
He throws himself into the work. The laborers left uninjured by the war join him, hiding from unseen wounds beneath a sheen of sweat and dust. The village begins to find its way into life again, after so long in the half-light.
It takes months to repair the time-worn sections of stone and scaffold and begin new construction, but eventually the spires of the cathedral begin to rise.
I finish the last windows, impossibly tall lancets, frame them in iron, and wait.
We install the windows nearly a year later on a series of clouded days, the sound of distant thunder ringing in our ears. I watch helplessly as they maneuver my delicate glasswork, guiding each window into its place. The crucifix is the last to be installed, set in the largest south-facing window.
When it is done and the sun returns, he and I enter the cathedral alone. The floors are unfinished, the sanctuary unfurnished, yet the space pulls the air from my lungs.
Dazzling hues dance on the stone, illuminating the soaring vaults in ethereal shades. We pause before the crucifix, struck motionless by its glory in the early morning light. I am suddenly aware of his arm, hanging just inches from mine as we gaze at the most stunning window I have ever made.
He is awash in violet and gold, dappled across his face like feathers. I have never seen anything so resplendent as the small smile of awe that pulls at the corner of his mouth.
For a small, holy moment, he reaches out and we stand, hands clasped tightly together as the light stains its color onto our skin.