The Book of Hours (excerpt)

Sofia.jpg

Sofia loved to study islands—volcanic islands, desert islands, islands of ice and snow, islands dense with jungles and geysers, islands studded with pines and seams of precious ore. She loved to wander along their shores surveying the winds and waves that shaped them. She sought to attune herself to their microclimates and color, to search along their windswept bluffs and secret alcoves, and to imagine the staggering, sunken masses that supported them.

First, she’d appraise each island from afar, measuring its topography and character and carefully committing each of its shades and indentations to memory. And then, after she’d gained a familiarity with each island’s contour and composition, after she’d assessed its strengths and instabilities, she’d approach its waters to moor.

The islands she loved to explore were not in some distant, far-off place or surrounded by lapping waves and gulls on the wing. The archipelago Sofia charted consisted of commuters and wanderers clustered around small round tables dotted here and there along the walls and bookshelves in the Peppermint Café at Lightmere Station.

Sofia was a waitress, one who possessed a vast and vivid imagination. Pretending her customers were islands was a way of protecting herself, a way of keeping her distance, and she had good reason to. As well as being a visionary soul, Sofia was a deeply empathic woman. She could feel everything around her to an extraordinary degree. She could sense the smallest shifts in a person’s temperament and was prone to absorb their moods and melancholy, so she had to be careful. Indeed, she could easily be overcome by a person’s energy from far across the room—by their rage, their loneliness, their regret, despair or uncertainty just as much as by their softness or love. What was theirs became hers, so she imagined each person as an island across the sea and never approached land until it felt good and right.

Once she’d decided to sail into a customer’s territory, she’d do so with a special word or a smile, though she preferred the touch of a hand upon their arm so she could trace a particular thread of feeling and find its cause—a family dispute, a difficult childhood, an injury, a death. It was difficult to keep secrets from Sofia.

Sometimes she could even read a person’s thoughts, though she would be hard pressed to explain how. Some might have accused her of hearing voices, but then she would point out that people listen to their minds all the time, don’t they? It wasn’t her fault that they hadn’t realized their thoughts were not private to a sensitive soul such as her. Her ability came naturally. She just relaxed and then there it was—a word or sentence as clear as if it had been whispered in her ear.

Sofia had learned a long time ago to trust her gifts, but also to keep them private. She had no desire to be ridiculed or humiliated, and yet the fact that she’d become a keeper of secrets made each appraisal infinitely more special, even sacred. The more peaceful and beautiful her heart, the clearer the thoughts came to her. Knowing the power she possessed held as much potential for harm as it did good, she kept her intentions pure and did all she could to help the struggling souls around her.

In many ways she felt it was her calling to offer a spark of joy to each little island in the Peppermint Café. Each encounter was a mission of love; no matter how lost or lowly, how reserved or unapproachable, how tired or absent each person was when they first drifted in from the cold, Sofia saw it as her responsibility to offer them a moment of tenderness and thereby help scatter any darkness they harbored. She was a healer of injured hearts, and she knew it, though the idea of it sometimes seemed a little odd. It was just a smile, after all, and she was just a waitress, but she also knew the great power of kindness, how a gentle word could lift even the dourest creature into a clearer, more beautiful light.

Sofia’s position as a waitress provided only a modest income. To make ends meet, she had several other jobs—hairdresser, caregiver, babysitter, occasional ballet teacher—but without fail, every weekday morning, she’d arrive half an hour before the first train to unlock the Peppermint Café and begin her shift. Even though the hours she worked were long and demanding, she felt at home when she was at work, sailing from one table to another, bringing sustenance and succor to the archipelago of souls who would otherwise be adrift on the concourse of Lightmere Station.

There was often a small line outside the café when she arrived at the dawn hour, made up of new faces and regulars she knew by name, people from all walks of life pulled toward the Peppermint by impulse, curiosity and the guidance of an invisible hand. Sometimes her customers wanted to talk, seeking a word of encouragement or even private counsel, as if Sofia could provide a channel toward to an uncommon peace. Some came to feel the warmth of her presence, to receive a smile, while others sought nothing more than to feel valued, even if only for the time it took to order a hot drink. But mostly the people who visited the Peppermint Café wanted to be in the same room as Sofia, all without really knowing why.

Not a day went by without the islands of the Peppermint shifting and evolving in myriad ways. Indeed, Sofia’s efforts affected a vast number of people over the years. With each little gesture of kindness and reassurance—a disarming laugh, a sympathetic glance, a word of respect offered to calm a tide of crisis—she saw how an island of jagged, angry rock could soften into dunes of velvet sand. A patient ear could transform an isle of mountainous sorrow into one of hope and calm waters; a soft smile could lift a barren isle into a land of azure lakes and joyous waterfalls where riptides once tore at its corals. Even if the effect only lasted for a minute or two, it was a minute spent basking in a ray of love.

With just a smile or a sigh, she impressed upon each of her guests that they had found safe harbor among the tables of the Peppermint. After all, Sofia knew about loneliness. She knew about loss and grief and the pain of heartbreak. It was twenty-five years ago in the Peppermint Café that Sofia had watched her dear sister die in front of the world.