‘No closer.’ Billy runs up the bank and dodges between the claws of gorse bushes. Leaping over a tumbled drystone wall he puts his muddy hand on my shoulder. ‘No closer.’
Crows burst from the trees above, croaking heralds of the devil. For all that he’s two years older than me, Billy cowers too until the jarring caws and croaks settle.
‘But I’ve collected all this,’ I wave a sack at him, ‘and that.’ I point to another among the brambles.
He looks down at his own small bundle. ‘How did you get all that? Is it cow parsley?’
‘No, silly. I got plantain seed from the shore. There’s so much of it. I got agrimony for them to drink.’
Billy’s eyes widen. ‘You went all the way to the shore without me?’
He looks down, avoiding my gaze. ‘Did you … did you see anybody?’
I whisper as if I’m apologising – as if it’s my fault. ‘No, sorry, Billy.’
He sighs and lifts his bag. ‘I got a rabbit, well, two. One’s for us. All ready for cooking. That’s why my hands stink.’
‘A rabbit? Then we must go closer and hang everything from stones, or…’
‘Please, foxes and rats… Please, Billy, please?’
He shuffles; torn rags of low storm cloud drag from the standing stones on the hill ahead.
Billy turns and looks. ‘Alright, you always make me but it’s too close.’
I go to lift my other sack but Billy gets there first, eyebrows rising at the weight of it. ‘You kept any for us?’
‘Enough for today.’
‘Is that all?’ His shoulders sag.
‘There’s plenty more. We could go back tomorrow, get some seafood when the tide is low. Cockles and mussels and…’
He looks at me. I shudder. There’s something in his eyes I’ve not seen before. He says, ‘Will you … will you … I mean … I look after you.’ He looks away again. ‘We look after each other. You give so much to Harry…’ He tails off.
‘It’s not just Harry. There may be more down there. If we only find enough food for Harry…’ My throat tightens. I clutch Billy’s arm. ‘I’ll always look after you. We get enough … well, not always but we have each other. We can’t let Harry be all alone.’ I’m pleased with that. I’ve never said it so well before.
Billy’s silent until we reach the standing stones; he helps me lift my bag high onto a rock. Turning back to me he touches my cheek. ‘Will we always have each other?’
‘Yes, yes. I’ll never leave you.’
I get another long look but he’s less tense. I say, ‘Can you wash your hands? I hate the smell of raw rabbit.’
He pulls his hand away and looks at the stream. ‘Not here; we’re too close to Mossblown.’
The sun’s going down and lights up the fires of Hell over the horizon. We both cross ourselves and look for the angels. Cloud hides most of them but Billy points. ‘Look, there’s one that doesn’t twinkle. We’ll be protected tonight.’
‘Even if a cloud gets in the way?’
‘Angels are powerful. Once they’ve shown themselves you know they mean to look after you.’
The door of our house fell off long ago. Billy made a cloth one that hangs from the thatching. We go into the darkness and he heads straight for the hearth. It’s lovely having Billy with me. The fire has only gone out a few times in years.
I kneel and pray, thanking our gentle lord for Billy and his skill, Billy and his clever mind, the kindness and strength that flow direct from Jesus, through him and into my life making it so rich and full of comfort. He makes me feel safe and important.
Billy’s blowing softly into the hearth then harder and harder. An orange glow turns yellow and blazes nearly white. I put logs on; he guides them and my hands.
The cold and devils of the night, with all their bad thoughts and temptations, are banished from the cottage.
It’s as if Billy reads my mind. He says, ‘There is ivy, I think, starting to grow in the thatch. I put holly over it too…’ He gets up and lays some across the door. ‘Now night will come, find it can’t get in and have to go.’
I feel so safe with Billy. When he prays he’s told just what to do every day to keep us safe.
I tend the plantain seed, drying it round the fire. When it’s ready, I’ll grind it. Billy spits the rabbit and the room fills with the smell of roasting meat. I almost groan with hunger.
Billy wafts young nettle through flames and we chew on the leaves.
He whispers, ‘Winter will come soon.’
I cross myself. It’s the same conversation every year. I hate it but Billy says it’s alright. ‘We must ask God to bless the Devil’s rock.’
That means climbing the brae and using stones and big sticks to break out the brimstone of Hell; the stuff that feeds the furnaces of Satan.
I really trust Billy. He knows how to take the curse off it. It’s just that enough for the winter takes up so much of our tiny house. It stinks even when it’s not burning. It makes your hands black, face black, everything black. If Billy gets it wrong and phantoms and devils aren’t expelled, then we bring them into our home.
Before he knew how to remove the curse he was nearly taken by our brimstone, went red as blood. I had to drag him outside and pray and pray in the snow by our big cross even though I was weak and sick too. When he was better we threw out the rest of the coal and froze our fingers and toes as we collected wood.
He tips the juice and fat from inside the rabbit into my flour. My stone, hollow from years of use, the place where pudding biscuits are made ready to toast. The stone my mother used… My poor mother burned in the church with all the others when they knew they had the curse.
Only Billy and I weren’t allowed in to die too.
I’m crying, shaking, hugging myself. Demons dance and shriek in my head at the thought of brimstone, plague and death. Billy’s hugging me, rocking me from side to side and singing hymns.
Doubts … terrible thoughts. They come at me again and again, breaking through my faith and my prayers. They’re stronger than ever, black shapes screaming at me, making me doubt everything: doubt Billy.
It’s me screaming. ‘Billy, don’t leave me!’
The crushing truth breaks through, turns me to nothing. The demons have smashed my dream; the dream I’ve built and fought so hard to make real for years.
Billy left long, long ago. Was he suffocated by the fumes of Hell from our hearth? Did he burn in the church? I don’t know… Some things happen but I make them seem unreal. I forget, blast them from my mind. My soul fills with howling madness.
My prayer has died. I’ve no power any more. I’m curled up in my blankets alone with only memories of people gone. Did I just keep Billy alive in my head? Was he an angel here to keep me company? Are both things true? Why has he gone? What ungodly deed did I do to suffer like this?
Nothing happens that you don’t deserve. I’m damned. Did I set fire to the church and the people inside weren’t plagued? I don’t trust my memories any more. My mind lets me down so often.
Praying and praying doesn’t help. There’s no hope just ordinary actions to go through. Banking the fire, pulling the holly from the door, setting traps in the pre-dawn light… Bitter gusts snatch at my ragged clothes and whip mist-soaked tails of hair against my face.
I’m small: a tiny speck in a huge landscape.
Fallen branches catch in bramble as I drag them to my home. Crows crack the air around with their cries, sending barbs of shock through me.
I left the door open, held aside with the stick. Crows scream and burst from the cottage, rabbit remains clutched in claws.
I scream, jump back and cower as horrid wings thrash and punch the air all around me.
The room is a-swirl with flying ash. Fleas patter in hordes with all the riot.
I bank the fire again, tears of pointlessness cutting through the ash on my face. I’ve only jobs to do. Jobs I always do. Things that make it seem I’m doing something worthwhile.
Re-tying the rags round my feet, I head out with my bag. Fat hen, sorrel, the tips of nettles … all the usual stuff to leave in the stone circle.
The bags I left yesterday are empty as usual. The people of Mossblown leave them for me to fill again. I take the empty ones and turn away.
No, there’s no point in anything. Why don’t I just sit down and die?
I sit, the sun warming my face, drying my hair. Two butterflies dance past and land on a stone to bask.
Everything I held dear has gone. No… there’s something left, small but unbreakable. Yes, there is a point to me, my point. There’s Harry and people still alive. They still need me to collect food until the plague is gone.
Can you really be lonely if someone needs you? No. I’ll never let you down, Harry. I can’t. You shouted at girls who called me a witch, punched boys who said I was a lunatic because I’d let the devil inside me. You held me when I saw things that others didn’t, when the pain became too much.
Another knot of jumbled thoughts comes clear. Billy … you may not be here but where does this feeling of being loved come from? I know it’s God but it still feels like it comes through you. You’re still real somewhere. Tonight when I look into the sky you’ll be twinkling up there for me won’t you?
A sound … what was it?
I stand turning my head this way and that trying to hear it again. Something so quiet, so short I can’t even tell what it was. Like a fragment of a dream that vanishes even as you catch it, filling you with empty longing.
There … from down the hill. A sound pushing against the wind.
A church bell! Mossblown church…
I’m dizzy. I fall to my knees, hands over my mouth. The sound comes again only to be whipped away. I want to go down to Mossblown. I don’t care if they’ve still got plague. Yes I do care; they need me to be healthy for them…
‘Jesus, Jesus, give me guidance!’ Hands clutched together I wait for an answer. Nothing.
‘Dear lord, I’m so alone and simple. I need your sweet wisdom.’
The bell rings louder and clear; bashing the wind away this time. The power of God.
‘Thank you, my lord.’
I rise. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I last went to Mossblown. I was too small to go there myself. I suppose my parents carried me.
Mossblown … the place of terror. Adults telling us how bags of pus grew in people and burst causing terrible pain. How we should never go near, or suffer the same and watch the fruit of our disobedience spread into our own homes and families.
But Jesus has sent a sign that it’s alright to go there now.
I don’t even know the way but there’s the bell to guide me.
I take my first tiny pace as the bell rings again, my second in the same way. The bell doesn’t stop, blessing each step.
There’s no path. Surely there would be a path if people collected food here every day? Did I only imagine that as well? There’s only the occasional print as if someone came up here recently and went down again. One visit… Dew has been knocked from stems. Someone was here just now? Did they see me and leave? Long strides. A tall, tall person: taller than Billy.
The brambles are a bloodthirsty wall. Every crowded gorse bush takes its share of me too.
At the bottom of the hill it’s all broom and bracken easy to push through.
I hear a cow!
A cow… People must be alive if they’re tending cows. What if I have plague? Will I kill everyone?
My steps match the bell as much as I can make them.
At last a path … a road with cart tracks. I stop, despite the bell urging me on. A road … as wide as my house.
I go on. There’s a cottage, two cottages … more … smoke coming through the thatch. A street with round stones to tread on instead of mud. The lumps feel strange under my rags.
And a church.
The early sun, pure and white, shines on the far side and blazes bright colours in patterns through the windows. The beauty makes me stagger, legs and breath weak. At the archway the doors stand wide open. That’s where all the people are, why everything is so quiet except for the sound of prayer and the bell.
My hand shakes as I touch a stone at the entrance. It’s smooth, like pebbles but square, not round. How do you make stone flat? I can’t remember seeing anything like it. Drystone walls and cottages can look smooth from a distance but all jagged rocks when you’re close.
Another step, another step. I’m walking between kneeling people, their heads down and praying. There’s a man dressed in… I don’t know what to call the perfect cloth that hangs from his shoulders to his feet. He’s as old as old can be. Lines on his face, thin white straggles of hair.
‘Amen.’ He looks up and the bell stops. ‘Congregation, please remain kneeling. She has arrived. You are in the presence of someone who has never sinned.’
He looks down the central gap. They have a name I forget … so long ago… He starts talking again, ‘This morning I ascended the hill to the ancient stones of our forefathers and saw a vision. A vision of loyalty, bravery and endurance. The lord told me I should call the vision here. Welcome, little one. You may not recognise me. I am Harry and the Good Lord tells me that since I was a child you have tried to feed me and the people of Mossblown, believing we still had plague.’ He pauses, a catch in his voice. ‘Though you were my friend and blessing all those years ago, I don’t remember your name. I count that as a grievous loss. I summoned the whole village this morning to pray, to call you amongst us, to sing your praise and to ask for your blessing.’
He’s staring down the aisle, that’s the name, we had one in our church, but not all these carved seats and flat stone on the floor and ceiling that goes up and up for ever and ever.
‘Harry?’ He can’t be Harry…
A voice from the side of the church says, ‘He can’t see or hear you. I told him you were here, gave him a vision.’
He laughs. Everything’s alright again. He’ll make everything right. We run to each other, hug, swing each other around. He stops, breathless. ‘Quick, give them your blessing.’
‘They have farms to tend, children to feed: bless them.’
‘Billy, what?’ My mind’s gone blank. Since I saw Billy, I’d forgotten anything existed except him.
He says, ‘Listen to me. Some people are special, they have a special path to take. You are one.’
‘I’m not special. I’m…’
He puts a finger over my lips and says, ‘That’s the thing about special people: they don’t know it. Give this congregation, the people of Mossblown your blessing!’
‘Billy… I… I… help me, Billy!’ My mind is all tangled again. I burst into tears and hug him.
He strokes my hair. ‘Shh now. Relax, my love. We died a long, long time ago. Your loyalty to Harry kept you here. My love for you kept us together. We took the path to being angels. Give these people your blessing and I’ll take you to Heaven where your mind will be forever clear. We can be together, looking down on Mossblown and shining over it at night. The people will be able to see us, know we’re there. You can still look after them and I can look after you.’
©Gary Bonn 2013