Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Stella looked at Rufus now, asleep in a chair, with his papers spread across his knees and on the floor around him. Poor Rufus. He was so tired all the time. They all were. Who could have told that death would be so tiring? It was as if grieving were some terrible long-distance race which wrung you out and left you limp and beached. They shoot horses, don’t they? Stella thought.
Poor Rufus. Only days after Felix’s death, Stella’s sister-in-law had told her that bereavement drives couples apart, more often than not, rather than bringing them together. Stella saw that that could happen. For herself, though, she knew that it would not. To part from Rufus would require energy and a depth of feeling Stella would never have again. Even now, when sorrow was as raw as new-flayed flesh, she knew that to be the case. In time a skin would form across her wounds, she knew that too, but it would always be as fragile as a first frost’s light glaze on water, and as easy to break through. The hurt beneath would never heal. Nor would she want it to. Forget-me-not.
A state of indifference was what she hoped to reach. A neutral state of being. Neither fevered nor frozen, neither
loving nor hating, not wanting, not waiting, expecting no change and caring for nothing, surviving not living, like a primitive creature in the darkest reaches of the sea. You’re lucky Felix was not your only, the same sister-in-law had said, in an attempt at consolation. Imagine that! To lose your only child and be too old to bear another. At least you still have Barney and Camilla.
That too was true. And they were the exceptions to her carelessness. She would go on loving them, of course. But, as a whispering snaky voice inside her pointed out, if they were dead, she too could die, which at the moment was the option she desired most. She thought of families she had known who superstitiously refused to travel as a group. Parents flying separately she understood, but not the idea of sharing out the unlikely though potential risk between their children. In spells of turbulence or when the noises in an aircraft suddenly changed key and the knuckles of nervous passengers whitened on their armrests, Stella used to think there would be worse fates than plunging downward through the clouds together.
Worse fates? Well, even now, in the fiercest grip of anguish, Stella knew that her surviving children had their whole lives left to live and would live them well. They would mourn their brother but they would move on and one day they would laugh again and love and perhaps have children of their own. And then they’d learn the deepest form of terror.
Felix had saved her from that terror; she knew that too, already. The thing that every mother dreads most agonizingly had happened and there was nothing left to fear. Felix had conquered death. If a small, defenseless child could die
so easily, slipping out of life like a mayfly on a summer evening, breathing at one moment and not breathing the next, then so could all of us. Death was quite disarmed. And, what is more, the knowledge of this death had proved to Stella that those who are left behind can go on living, provided that they live in a state of equilibrium that comes quite close to calm.
And provided that the dead can go on living too, in substance, not as pious metaphor. Felix had lived inside his mother for nine months and now she would carry him again forever. It was not true or right to say the wombs that never bore were blessed. Bearing children had taught Stella the lesson of love, the loss of a child confirmed it. Stella knew the agony she suffered now was equal to the love she felt and that the two were inextricably connected. Without love there could be no sorrow. And who would choose to forgo love so as to spare themselves the agony of loss?
But. There were salt lands, desert places still to cross. The distance between understanding and acceptance was immense. And so conditional, so provisional, so reliant on perhaps, and could, and an imperfect future tense. This was another lesson painfully and slowly learned. That a being as alive and warm and whole as Felix could in the space of seconds be transformed into something that could only be described in the third person and the past. That this child would never
again. Stella still could not believe it. If she slept she dreamed that Felix lived, and when she woke, the dawning of the truth hurt so much she cried out loud in pain.
This doctor was being seriously stupid, Mary-Margaret thought. How many more times did she have to tell him? Over and over again she had explained. She was a chosen one, a messenger, a dearly loved disciple. But she was the daughter of a sinner. Most people were, it was true to say, sinners, that is; she was one herself. But, unlike her mother, she went to confession regularly and was truly sorry for her grievous faults. Her mother, on the other hand, was in a constant state of mortal sin. So, in order to take away that sin, Mary-Margaret had to make a sacrifice. She knew she had to do it because Jesus had stopped talking to her from the cross. Well, He hadn’t exactly
to her in the beginning but He had communicated His great love and she knew He had a special mission for her. When He would not give her a new sign—when He stopped, after the first time, after the veils were taken down—Mary-Margaret had been very upset, and had wondered why He was so angry and what she had done wrong. Then she understood. About the sacrifice. You know. Sometimes it was rams or heifers. Or a pair of doves. But, when it really mattered, it was Isaac. You see, Isaac was someone deeply loved. Abraham, his father, loved him. Isaac was his only son. And of course no one ever loved a heifer like they loved a child. Mary-Margaret understood that she must sacrifice a thing she loved. Which was Shamso. But she also understood that God would not let Shamso die. He had stopped Abraham in the nick of time—just as he was about to plunge his knife into the child—and Mary-Margaret knew that He would stop her too. Which He did. Of course.
Dr. Qureshi could be quite annoying. Yes, all right, he did seem kind and he had lovely eyes but he never let you
know what he was thinking. Most people, listening to a friend or hearing the kind of tale Mary-Margaret was growing tired of telling, would widen their eyes or smile or at least look sympathetic. Show that they understood what you were saying. But Dr. Qureshi only nodded. Nod, nod, nod, like a flipping eejit, whatever you did or said. And, when he wasn’t nodding, he took notes. Or asked yet another pointless question.
What did you mean by sin? he was asking now. You mentioned that you thought you were the daughter of a sinner?
Well, I used to think she was a widow. My mother, I’m talking about. But, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, she told me she was never married. And that makes me a sinner. In sin did my mother conceive me, and in sin was I born into this world.
Dr. Qureshi nodded. It’s not all that unusual, he said. To have children without being married. I’m sure you know lots of single mothers. There’s no reason why they cannot love their children and take good care of them.
Mary-Margaret nodded in her turn. She couldn’t be bothered to explain. She should have known that Dr. Qureshi wouldn’t get her point; he probably didn’t know anything about sin, considering where he came from. A shame, it was, in fact. He could be thick but he was such a nice man and she would like to think his immortal soul was safe. She would also like to think he understood about the Morrison child being sent to rescue Shamso, but she was very much afraid that he did not. It was quite complicated, when you thought about it. She wasn’t absolutely sure, herself. The eighth day had been and gone. And there
was nothing, yet. Was it too hard to get a message to her, in this cold place with its locked doors? No, it wouldn’t be that—prison walls and double locks were no barrier to God. Mary-Margaret was beginning to get worried. She needed someone she could turn to, someone who would see the things she saw, unlike this doctor.
She switched her mind to him again. Taking care of children? Loving them? What was he talking about? It wasn’t something that had ever crossed her mind. She knew about love, God’s love, the deep-down thrilling warmth she felt when she contemplated Jesus; she had felt the same warmth, or something very like it, when she cradled Shamso. Or whenever she set eyes on Father Diamond, in the old days, before he got so shirty and impatient. And, of course, she loved her mother, for she had to, it was what daughters did. It went without saying—just as mothers loved their children; it was a law of nature, like sunset in the evening, or leaf fall, or rivers staying true to the same course. It was the chief commandment. Love.
She stopped thinking for a moment. Into her head came a picture of Fidelma at the door of her bedroom, with a padlock in her hand. Her mother, who was beautiful, until she grew so sad and fat. Did Mary-Margaret ever kiss that creamy cheek and snuggle deep into those arms? She supposed she must have done, but she could not remember. Certainly, when Mary-Margaret got big, she neither gave nor took a kiss; what an odd thing it would be for a grown girl to expect cuddles from her mother! That was for babies, surely, love didn’t come into the picture later; not in that way, the way the world took the meaning of the word.
Not everybody knew love was a duty; they got it muddled up with romantic stuff—valentines and flowers.
Hearts and kisses. Mary-Margaret shook her head to get rid of the thoughts that were swarming like flies inside it and making her feel tired and muddled. O sacred heart of Jesus, strengthen me, she said, out loud. And then, more quietly: deep in Thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me. She could feel tears prickling her eyes. Could she have got it wrong? Was the little boy an angel? If he were, he’d be immortal anyway, of course, but he wouldn’t necessarily come back. Not to see him in the flesh again, not to know he lived? A black thought that, so hopelessly black that it could not be borne. Mary-Margaret, willing it away, began to cry as openly and loudly as a child.
That black thing was crouching on her face. Its foul breath blew rank on her; she was suffocating. Fidelma screamed out loud to make it go, to call for help—and her own voice woke her. She struggled to sit up. It was cruelly dark. Dead of night, she knew it must be, although she could not see to tell the time. She gasped for air. Oh, she had begun to think she would survive. Did she want to? Well, that was another question altogether. One to ask of some part of her other than her mind. And what would that be, that part that lived a separate existence, like a tapeworm in the gut or a microbe in her bloodstream; would you call it the soul? No, the spirit more like, for the soul might equally whisper words of death in the darkness of the night. Was it the spirit that forced a fisherman swept overboard to fight
his frantic way up through the tar-black sea to fill his lungs with air again while another voice inside told him: hush now, sink down quietly, you will sleep soundly there, fathoms deep, among the bones of long-drowned men.
Who knows? She had faced dying and she had been reprieved for the time being by packages of food and promises of assistance from various well-meaning bodies. Yesterday evening she had got herself into her nightclothes and her bed, feeling somewhat proud of her achievements. Now this. The black thing come again, to press her down, to fill her eyes and nose and mouth with filthy dust, as if she were a victim of live burial, helpless beneath the weight of earth above her. She had heard of bodies that, exhumed, displayed every sign of having been alive when they were laid in the graveyard six feet under. Mouths agape in horror, fingers turned to claws, their tips worn down to naked bone from scraping vainly at the lids of their own coffins.
She remembered that she had been dreaming in the night of Mary-Margaret dying. Last week the sad-eyed doctor had assured Fidelma that her daughter would be well looked after in the hospital of the mad. We’re doing what we can, he said. She has a lawyer. While he was speaking, Fidelma had believed him. But, in the days since, with her partial recovery from shock, Fidelma had been mulling on her daughter’s plight. It was said of her that she had killed a child. Fidelma was not ignorant; she knew full well that accusations must be proved in court. Innocent until proven guilty; was that not the phrase? But a child was dead. No lawyer’s clever words could bring that child back or assign his killing to another. A child was dead. His name was Felix. And it seemed that Mary-Margaret killed him.
Not for one moment did Fidelma think Mary-Margaret a murderer. She was quite sure that any killing done was accidental. But, try as she might, she could find no explanation for it. Nor excuse. How then would a doctor or a lawyer? Whatever arguments they made, whatever pleas for sympathy, Mary-Margaret would have to pay for killing Felix. And she could only do that by remaining locked away, cloistered from the world, far from any child whom she could hurt, for years and years, if not for the rest of her lifetime.
In the beginning, as the bleak reality of the situation impressed itself upon her, Fidelma was fearful for herself. How could she exist alone here, in her tower-prison, as helpless as a tortoise on its back, as a dolphin washed up on the strand? Later, she began to feel for Mary-Margaret. How would she bear her loss of freedom? A woman yet as childlike as her daughter—what would become of her behind locked doors, in the company of murderers and sinners?