The latch clicks shut as I pull the porch door closed and feel my way in the dark. A faint hint of incense hangs in the air, vying with distant memories of flowers. I catch sight of the stone font in the gloom and run my hand round its worn rim then, tracing the curve down and across its depths, I encounter water. Drawing back, I glance around, but no one is there to see. I pull a handkerchief from my pocket and hurriedly wipe my fingers then hold it to my nose. Despite the time, her scent lingers on.
She stood alone on the hillside, her hands outstretched, her head upturned. Above, uncountable stars blinked down, setting off bitter sparks of joy in her chest. The full moon crested the horizon and arced upwards taking leave of the earth. “Mother,” she called out, her voice quivering as she stamped her feet to stave off the cold. A wind murmured in the distant trees, swirled across the exposed hilltop and ruffled the skirts about her ankles. It had been so long. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Venturing into the tiny nave, my footsteps echo hesitant off the walls. A shaft of light from a solitary window high above the altar pierces the gloom, casting a host of dancing colours across the floor. Laying a hand on the green cloth that runs the length of the wooden slab, I kneel where so many have knelt before. I am about to close my eyes when a faint rustling has me on my feet. It comes from behind the altar. A mouse surely. I skirt the table with cautious steps, one hand raised to strike, only to discover a cowering girl.
An owl swept low overhead and with a flurry settled on the young woman’s shoulder, letting out a mournful cry. Not content, it turned its head and butted her ear with its beak. She raised a hand to stroke its back when a sharp twang in a nearby bush had her flinging herself to the ground. An arrow whizzed over her head, skimming the screeching bird. A second arrow dug into the ground inches from her knee. She rolled over, sprang to her feet and darted this way and that before she dived for shelter amid the leaves.
In rags, the wretched girl stares at me with haunted eyes. One step is enough to have her skittering away on all fours, halted only by the chapel wall. “I won’t harm you,” I whisper. A moan bursts from her lips as I stretch forth a helping hand. Hammering at the door has us both jump. She scampers beneath the altar cloth and I hurry back to my prayers. With a crunch of hobnailed boots, a wave of sweat and laboured breathing bursts into the chapel. The soldiers fan out, thrusting with musket butts behind curtains and beneath pews.
The owl screeched a warning overhead. Too late. A rough hand gripped her shoulder and, despite her struggles, forced her to the ground. The wind rushed from her lungs as a boot kicked her once, twice, three times in the stomach. When she came to, her wrists were bound behind her back and two hooded figures were heaving her up. “Try calling your mother now,” a third man taunted. The two others laughed. Mother, she called out silently. Now is the time.
Eyes closed, I brace myself. A heavy hand seizes my shoulder making me start. My eyes fly open and I peer up at twisted features and a cruel mouth. “Where’s the brat?” I shrug. I’ve been through this before. Better not to speak. I am hauled to my feet and dragged behind the altar. The men scour every recess, but come away empty handed. Dumping me on the floor, they curse their way to the door and slam it shut.
“My eyes,” a man screamed, falling to the ground, his bloody hands clasped to his face. The man closest to her whipped out a knife and pressed it to her throat. “Stop that!” A second man collapsed with a piecing scream. “Call off your bird or I’ll kill you,” he said, as cold metal dug into her flesh. Then he gasped and his hand relaxed, letting the knife fall to the ground as he sank in a heap. The owl landed on his back, its claws and beak red with blood. Recovering the man’s knife, she cut herself free and, fingering her neck, sighed with relief. “Thank you, Mother.”
I take a deep breath and hasten in search of the girl. But all I find are cobwebs and dust. Could my longings have conjured such a waif from the shadows of hope? I sigh. The sun must have broken free of a cloud, because light bursts through the window, spotlighting the lectern with its rays. I draw closer, feeling a fluttering presence stir within my chest and my heart unfurls, a part of me surging upwards to join the light. On the lectern a volume lies open, it’s illuminated letters colourful in that shaft of warmth. Three sentences stand highlighted in a dainty script, singled out by a sole affirmation: Yes. I read aloud: There is nothing richer than silence. Nothing more moving than being still. Nothing more all encompassing than being alone.