The reaction was less than Jason hoped. Mandy shrugged, expressionless, but she still took the proffered earphones. She brushed back the pink-dyed tips of her black hair and settled the phones to her ears. The movement opened her jacket enough to reveal the press of her applesized br**sts against her black Pixies T-shirt.
“I don’t hear anything,” Mandy said with a tired sigh, arching an eyebrow at him.
Oh. Jason turned his attention back to his iPod and pressed Play.
He leaned back on his hands. The two were seated on a thin grass sward that framed the open pedestrian plaza, called the Domvorplatz. It surrounded the massive gothic cathedral, the Kölner Dom. Perched on Cathedral Hill, it commanded a view over the entire city.
Jason gazed up the length of the twin spires, decorated with stone figures, carved in tiers of marble reliefs that ranged from the religious to the arcane. Now, lit up at night, it held an eerie sense of something ancient risen from deep underground, something not of this world.
Listening to the music leaking from the iPod, Jason watched Mandy. Both were on summer holiday from Boston College, backpacking through Germany and Austria. They were traveling with two other friends, Brenda and Karl, but the other two were more interested in the local pubs than attending tonight’s midnight mass. Mandy, though, had been raised Roman Catholic. Midnight masses at the cathedral were limited to a few select holidays, each attended by the Archbishop of Cologne himself, like tonight’s Feast of the Three Kings. Mandy had not wanted to miss it.
And while Jason was Protestant, he had agreed to accompany her.
As they waited for the approach of midnight, Mandy’s head bopped slightly to the music. Jason liked the way her bangs swept back and forth, the way her lower lip pouted out as she concentrated on the music. Suddenly he felt a touch on his hand. Mandy had shifted her arm closer, brushing her hand atop his. Her eyes, though, remained fixed on the cathedral.
Jason held his breath.
For the past ten days, the two had found themselves thrown together more and more often. Before the trip, they had been no more than acquaintances. Mandy had been Brenda’s best friend since high school, and Karl was Jason’s roommate. Their two respective friends, new lovers, hadn’t wanted to travel alone, in case their budding relationship soured while traveling.
So Jason and Mandy often ended up sightseeing alone.
Not that Jason minded. He had been studying art history back at college. Mandy was majoring in European studies. Here their dry academic textbooks were given flesh and girth, weight and substance. Sharing a similar thrill of discovery, the two found each other easy traveling companions.
Jason kept his own eyes averted from her touch, but he did move one finger closer to hers. Had the night just gotten a tad brighter?
Unfortunately the song ended too soon. Mandy sat straighter, pulling away her hand to remove the earphones.
“We should be getting inside,” she whispered, and nodded toward the line of people flowing through the open door of the cathedral. She stood up and buttoned her jacket, a conservative black suit coat, over her flamboyant T-shirt.
Jason joined her as she smoothed her ankle-length skirt and combed the pink tips of her hair behind her ears. In a breath, she transformed from a slightly punk college student into a staid Catholic schoolgirl.
Jason gaped at the sudden transformation. In black jeans and a light jacket, he felt suddenly underdressed to attend a religious service.
“You look fine,” Mandy said, seeming to read his worry.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
They gathered their things, threw their empty Coke cans into a nearby trashcan, and crossed the paved Domvorplatz.
“Guten Abend,” a black-frocked deacon greeted them at the door. “Willkommen.”
“Danke,”. Mandy mumbled as they climbed the stairs.
Ahead, candlelight flowed through the cathedral’s open doorway, flickering down the stone steps. It enhanced the feeling of age and ancientness. Earlier in the day, while taking a cathedral tour, Jason had learned that the cathedral’s cornerstone had been laid back in the thirteenth century. It was hard to fathom such a breadth of time.
Bathed in candlelight, Jason reached the massive carved doors and followed Mandy into the front foyer. She dabbed holy water from a basin and made the sign of the cross. Jason felt suddenly awkward, acutely aware that this was not his faith. He was an interloper, a trespasser. He feared a misstep, embarrassing himself and in turn Mandy.
“Follow me,” Mandy said. “I want to get a good seat, but not too close.”
Jason stepped after her. As he entered the church proper, awe quickly overwhelmed unease. Though he had already been inside and learned much about the history and art of the structure, he was again struck by the simple majesty of the space. The long central nave stretched four hundred feet ahead of him, bisected by a three-hundred-foot transept, forming a cross with the altar at the center.
Yet it was not the length and breadth of the cathedral that captured his attention, but its impossible height. His eyes were drawn up and up, guided by pointed archways, long columns, and the vaulted roof. A thousand candles trailed thin spirals of smoke, sailing heavenward, flickering off the walls, redolent with incense.
Mandy led him toward the altar. Ahead, the transept areas to either side of the altar had been roped off, but there were plenty of empty seats in the central nave.
“How about here?” she said, stopping midway up the aisle. She offered a small smile, half thanks, half shyness.
He nodded, struck dumb by her plain beauty, a Madonna in black.
Mandy took his hand and pulled Jason down to the end of the pew, by the wall. He settled to his seat, glad for the relative privacy.
Mandy kept her hand in his. He felt the heat of her palm.
The night certainly was brightening.
Finally, a bell sounded and a choir began to sing. The Mass was beginning. Jason took his cues from Mandy: standing, kneeling, and sitting in an elaborate ballet of faith. He followed none of it, but found himself intrigued, becoming lost in the pageantry: the robed priests swinging smoking globes of incense, the processional that accompanied the arrival of the archbishop with his tall miter hat and gold-trimmed vestments, the songs sung by both choir and parishioners, the lighting of the Feast candles.
And everywhere the art became as much a part of the ceremony as the participants. A wooden sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus, called the Milan Madonna, glowed with age and grace. And across the way, a marble statue of Saint Christopher bore a small child in his arms with a beatific smile. And overlooking all were the massive Bavarian stained-glass windows, dark now, but still resplendent with reflected candlelight, creating jewels out of ordinary glass.