It feels as if they have been in here for hours. Outside, it’s hot, an aggressive midday heat, but the stone is cool, the respite welcome, even if these corridors, these shaded cloisters, seem to wind on endlessly. They pass by one murky shuttered chapel after another. The tour guide, with her long, long list of dates and names, has a waterfall of a voice. Elisa’s parents make sounds of intellectual digestion; they um and hmm and ah. Occasionally they hunker down and earnestly point things out. Little details which they hope might excite her. They renew their earlier promise of ice cream. They urge her to stay close.
Elisa quickens her pace and thickens her smile. She ceases to heel-drag across the flagstones. After a while she finds herself drawn to the frescoed faces on the walls, with their flat eyes and their gazes eternally fixed; they seem to peer directly at her and so she stares back, intently, breath held. There have always been children here, the guide explains, orphans, the abandoned, those in need of protection. This was a place of safety, shelter. Her parents um and hmm again and Elisa places a hand on the worn, warm wood of the door frame and wonders what other fingers have traced these same smooth places.
She is still idling by the door when her parents round a corner and start to climb the stairs. Watching their twin pink backpacks bobbing away from her, Elisa is obliged to scurry. Her sandals make a brash slapping noise on the marble steps and the tour guide fixes her with a sharp, official eye before the flow of words begin again.
The convent’s upper level is even cooler and quieter and the fizz of the outside world seems even further away. Her parents are inspecting an engraving, their heads bowed, their bodies arcing towards one another; they consult the crinkled pamphlet they hold in their hands and attempt a few questions in their halting Spanish. The guide brightens, beams, and straightens her blazer before launching into a fresh explanation. Elisa’s parents continue to nod keenly, though she notices a kind of slackening in the muscles around her mother’s mouth as the verbal tide continues.
Then. Something. A breeze. A kind of calling. The sun, pouring in from a high window, is raw and bright, and Elisa, blinking, moves slowly away from her parents. The light pools on the back wall, illuminating a recessed space, a strange kind of cupboard. As she gets nearer Elisa realises that it is in fact a tiny chapel, built at eye-height with everything in miniature, the statues and frescoes, the detailing, all scaled down for small hands and small souls. There were children here. At its centre sits a wax-white figure, with its arms flung wide and its ravaged torso contorted, wracked: a not-quite-inch-high Christ with marzipan skin. There is something incredibly touchable about him. She struggles with the urge to pluck him from his cross, to cup him, buff him like a coin; to press his tiny body to her lips. Behind her, the tour guide’s voice flickers and down-shifts but does not pause. Elisa is exquisitely aware of her own breathing. The sun seems to pluck at the back of her neck. The chapel’s ancient filigree gate, a spider web of gilded threads, stands open, inviting. She raises a hand, reaches in, not to prod, not really, just to brush its skin with hers. She touches her fingertip to the top of its head, registers the texture, the fine-work of the hair, watches as the figure first wobbles and then tumbles from its perch. This does not alarm her. Halting his fall, she lifts him up to catch the light. The white face warms.
The tour guide has stopped talking and is now making a kind of urgent squawking sound. Elisa is aware of a quickening behind her while her parents’ humming has taken on a frantic quality. Her fingers, wrapped around the tiny body, remain dry. She studies the two painted eyes; the irises are almost shocking, whiter even than the skin.
Her name is called, first calmly then less so. Elisa clutches the figure in her fist, reluctant to part from it. There were children here once, kneeling where she now stood, the sun stroking their necks as they prayed. The little Christ sits in her hand, spiny like a sea-creature; from the look of him she had thought he would be more pliable. The tour guide is moving towards her now, her heels clipping across the stone floor, her voice firm but restrained. Elisa’s father makes a sound that is part-cough, part-command. The tiny face peers out at her still, its chin resting on her finger, and within her hand she feels something – an arm most likely – crack, give.
Her next move seems clear, almost foregone. She pets the head one last time and pops the whole thing in her mouth. He tastes of dust and age, with a trace of something sweet. He splays on her tongue for a second, contained within her mouth. She enjoys the shape of him there, the angles and edges, the ridge of his spine. With an effort of will she swallows. It is not easy; it takes more than one attempt. Only then does she turn to face them.