Are you ready for this? Another short story, that is. Enjoy!
A Warm Late Spring Sunday
A Short Story, by ~Sha’Tara~ aka ~burning woman~
“Je pense aux choses impossibles, aux mondes qu’on ne voit pas; je pense jusqu’à ne plus savoir dans quel monde je suis…” (B. deBuxy, from the story: La Demoiselle au Bois Dormant)*
The years, which in their latter times had been rather gentle and calm, had gone by, and after many, she had stopped counting them. After her hair turned grey, then white, she had gradually eschewed consulting her mirror on the wall. Instead, she had lengthened and increased her walks about the old village where she now lived, the village where she had been born, had been taken from after the great war, and had finally returned to, if to discover that all the people she had known as a child had either left, or had died.
Louisa-May Loughlin had no family that she knew of in the entire world. An only child, orphan from the war, she had been rounded up at age seven, along with hundreds of parentless, homeless children and shipped to a foreign land to be raised in an orphanage where she had been given the name Louisa-May because the authorities could neither pronounce nor spell her Celtic first name. At fourteen, considered at that time old enough to work, she had entered service as a maid to a well-to-do family and eventually she had married Roy Loughlin, a steel worker who rented a basement suite in that family’s sprawling home.
Her husband had been very good to her and she had learned to love him. Their entire married life was spent in a cozy two bedroom bungalow Roy had built on a barren hillock overlooking the small shallow, muddy river called ‘The Ram.’ Though they remained childless, they fostered several children over the years and had their hands full. Theirs and neighbouring children would build rafts and float them on the lazy brown river and on hot days they would strip and swim in the murky waters. Afterwards the children would run up to the house and wash off the smell of river water in the clean, cool water that came from the pump mounted over the well. Louisa-May would serve them juice and cookies and let them entertain her with their river adventures.
Over the years her house became a place of refuge for the children of mill workers when problems arose in their homes. Seldom a week went by that the house did not contain an additional small guest sleeping in the low but comfortable attic. Louisa-May would always accompany her small charges when returning them to their home, staying to counsel and provide help when needed, or when possible.
An accident at the mill crippled Roy and he spent his last year at home, bed-ridden in considerable pain and in a great deal of frustration. Louise, as she was now called, nursed him as he deteriorated and finally died at the age of fifty three. Louise was then forty-nine, and having no one left to look after, she decided to return to her homeland; to the village where she had been born. A large group of people, young and old, had accompanied her to the train station. Many sincere good-bye’s were said; many tears shed. It was a difficult moment for Louise, but her mind was made up and she resolutely got on board, waved once again, and was lost to her friends as the train rumbled on heading east to the seaport.
This particular April Sunday, a week before Easter, was cool, with the south-west wind from the sea still carrying the bite of Winter, but the sun was bravely shining and you could feel its heat if you stood in a sheltered space and turned your face to the southern sky. She had been thus, standing in the lee of an old stone wall bordering the Catholic cemetery, facing the morning sun. At the other end of the cemetery and across the gritty flagstone road that served as main street for the village stood the old church, all grey stone covered in part with ivy and moss. The bell in the belfry rang a half-dozen times to announce that it was a quarter to ten and the Grand Mass (the main Sunday morning mass) was about to start.
“Good morning, May!”
She turned to look at her interlocutor. It was Sylvain, the old verger who, having seen her from his vantage point in the belfry as he rang the bell, had walked to her while taking a short break between masses.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it, m’lady?” Sometimes the villagers called her May, since she had deliberately dropped the Louisa when she had returned “home” and sometimes they called her “m’lady.” She accepted either with equanimity.
“It is a beautiful day indeed, M. Sylvain, though Spring seems somewhat late this year.”
“Been late the last couple of years. Changes, y’know. Despite our best intentions and our holding on to our old traditions, life is change, a sad thing for those who never learn and do not understand.”
She smiled at him, knowing full well what he was saying. She knew all about change, and changing circumstances, and she also knew that the best way to go through life was to always make allowances for change; to expect it. You could not predict change, but you could be in a place of mind where any change could be, if not wholly welcome, at least be received with grace.
“It’s warm enough today – would you like to break bread with me over a glass of wine at my garden table after mass, Sylvain? I’ve spent a whole week just thinking and I would like to share some thoughts with you…”
Sylvain and May had been friends for more than ten years now, but they understood the need to maintain a strict sense of propriety. They never entered alone in each-other’s abode so as not to give ammunition to wagging and too often, gossipy evil tongues. In today’s lax morality, or better put, complete lack of such, their sense of propriety would probably be laughed at, but this is a different place, thus a different time; a time of wild roses and orchids in untrodden woodlands; of subtle shrugs and demure smiles that tell stories of passion no modern romance novel or movie, however brazen or steamy, can ever hope to compete with. Sylvain and May knew each other better from the touch of a finger tip and a look in each other’s eyes than the most ardent lovers would ever know.
The conservative Latin mass, with its fifty or so participants, over, May exchanged greetings with the priest, Gregoir Chantelot, who thanked her volubly for her various well-known efforts on behalf of the village poor and sick. Chantelot loved to be the center of attention and May provided another way if he could somehow ride on her reputation. He had tried many times to insinuate himself into her life, to get invited to lunch after mass, or some such, even inviting her to ride with him and visit the Monseigneur at the bishopric, but even when he walked or drove the half mile to her cottage at the far end of the village to visit, she would meet him outside and exchange only a few words before saying, “Sorry Father but I have some duty to attend, if you will please excuse me…” Thus summarily if gently dismissed, he could do aught but salute her and carry on his rounds. What did Chantelot really think of May? No one knew. When he spoke of her he did so with apparent unfeigned admiration.
If asked, May would probably have had difficulty explaining why she kept the priest at arm’s length. She had no reason to dislike him, he was likeable enough, but her intuition told her to beware of him: he could not be trusted and he was hiding a dark and menacing secret which she hoped never to discover. May, as kind, compassionate and trustworthy a person as any could ever meet disliked secrets of all kind. In her conversations with the villagers, she would say, “Secrets are made to be told. Only fools tell secrets to each other. There is no difference between telling a secret and telling a lie. Only gossip is worse.” Thus she quietened and put to shame many a loose tongue.
She took her time walking back from the church, enjoying the awakening of life along the road and in the surrounding fields. In some, sheep and goats grazed contentedly, the braying of lambs mixing with the calls of crows, robins and brown sparrows singing from fence posts. The sun, at its zenith, poured its warmth over the land and gave all a sense of forever well-being. For a moment May almost wished she hadn’t invited Sylvain to eat with her so she could find a stone to sit on and dream as the earth spun majestically through the heavens while its new life laboured madly beneath her feet and shining white gulls circled in the cerulean sky above her head.
With her heart filled with the simple abundance of her surroundings, she pondered it. “Who deserves such a wonderful life,” she thought, “when there is so much wrong with this world? Why have I been given so much when so much is taken from so many others? I don’t remember ever seeking this peace or happiness – it just seems to flow to me; has always flown to me. Why not for everybody? I must accept it but will I ever really understand it?”
In a depression between two pastures and partially obscured by a huge blackened tree stump she saw a touch of white blossoming along the ground. “Wild strawberries,” she thought, “I have to remember to tell the children where they can be found.” One wonder after another surprised her and filled her walk until she reached her dilapidated gate, wide open, its lower end buried in the ground, solidly anchored in tufts of grass and the beginning of an ivy. The gate had never been closed since May had moved in. She would never close her gate against anyone or anything. Her place was a refuge, not a sanctuary. Whatever privacy or safety she needed she had in her mind and in her heart. Her physical space was for sharing and all the villagers knew this. No one in need of some sustenance, some care, some wisdom or a place to stay a while hesitated to come to May.
Her small cottage tucked under a tangle of old fruit trees in what had once been an orchard presented a friendly face to any visitor. To the left of the front door, below the kitchen window, stood a small round cement table and a couple of wooden benches which a thankful villager had brought her were tucked under when unoccupied. That’s where she saw Sylvain who, having cut across the fields after completing his duties, had arrived some time before.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to make you wait, Sylvain. I guess I was wool-gathering a bit too much on the way back. Did you fetch yourself some juice?”
He got up to greet her and raised his arm, “Yes, and a glass, thank you May. I enjoyed the wait. So much to see, hear and smell in this small space; its sense of peace is transcendent. Thank you for inviting me.” This said while he stared into a budding pear tree. Scratching noises and incessant ‘tchitting’ could be heard coming from somewhere near the tree top. “I think you have guests there, May. They’re building a nest.”
“Is that a pair of grey finches? They come every year. Such sweeties, so friendly. Another blessing to add to this day my friend.”
Sylvain reached for the other bench, pulled it out for May and sat down again. “What did you have on your mind today, May?” he asked almost in a whisper.
May stood a moment beside him, sighed, then touched his hand lightly. “I’ll get us some food and after we eat, we will talk, or rather, I will talk and if you choose, you will listen to me.”
“Very well.” He stood again, as she walked through the open doorway, and he waited while she opened the shutters on the kitchen window and passed out a couple of plates, a loaf of bread, cheese, butter, knives, a bottle of red wine, a corkscrew and two wine glasses. Sylvain passed back his empty juice glass which he heard her rinse. Then she stepped out slowly, looking in his eyes. She sat and began to cut the bread and cheese, filling his plate and passing it to him. Then she cut some thin slices for herself and after saying grace, they both ate in silence, she hesitant, he expectant.
After filling the wine glasses, Sylvain made a toast to Spring and sipped slowly, watching her, sensing her unease. He was about to say something to break the uncomfortable silence when she raised her hand to stop him.
“I’ve lived a long, quasi-magical life, Sylvain. Many a time I’ve had to stop to look at myself; to wonder about the why’s and the wherefores. You, of the many people I’ve known, are as aware as I that life is a gift. I don’t know about God or those other things our religion talks about so freely and I sense, so pointlessly, year after year, but I know that life is sacred. I may not believe that all are born “sinners” as the church claims, but whether one is born such or not, I know that life was given to me to make choices, severe personal choices, on how I would go through it.
“When I found myself without family, friends or home after the great war, I observed the people around me. I was seven years old at the time, old enough to know some things. War ages you, matures you, and if you survive it, you can draw from its harsh discipline and see the world quite differently than if you had not experienced the fear, the hunger, the horror of seeing your own mother’s body covered in mud and blood beside you the morning after a bombing. Yet there I was, unscathed, healthy, strong. I had a choice that morning: to feel sorry for myself and wait for someone to come by and comfort me, or to stand up, look around and offer help to those who hurt and those who grieved. I knew, even then, that life was being honest with me, saying, “Louisa-May, this is what I offer; this is my reality. How you take it and live it, that’s up to you now, no one else.”
“I would have stayed to help and give comfort, but the Red Cross people saw me as just another child. They took the orphans they found and sent them to orphanages in America. Ah, my friend, America: what a strange and confused land. Those people did not need a war to challenge them, they lived their entire lives as in war. They argued over possessions of lethal weapons which they could only use against each other since they had no real enemies to worry about. And yet they forever worried about imagined enemies, keeping them demonized in their own minds and seldom finding any peace of mind, much less of heart.
“It was a cold, hard country, not only the land, but also the people. They separated themselves in racial groups, the natives hidden on reservations, the blacks, descendants of recently freed slaves, fretting in ghettos where prostitution, drugs, drinking and violence proliferated and was accepted as normal. Other races lived as best they could in their own bits and pieces claimed from dying boroughs of aimless cities. And the rich lorded it over the rest. One could truthfully say that America was not so much a democracy as it was a plutocracy. I remember the pain this caused me and gradually I stopped listening to their radio and reading their newspapers. Even when their great depression happened, they never stopped believing that it was somehow caused by their enemies; not their rich lords whom they called businessmen, not their bankers, not their greedy government representatives who lived in luxury while their poor lingered in ill-health, ignorance and degradation, but by those who sought to better their own lives by organizing for better wages, better working and living conditions and equality of race. There simply was no understanding of how life is supposed to be lived. As Oscar Wilde observed, it was a nation that had gone from barbarism to high technology without bothering to create a civilization in between.
“So, over the years I closed myself in, refusing to look at the grand picture, choosing instead to focus on the people in my own neighbourhood, offering them help and healing when I could. I think that is when I found God then, only it wasn’t the same God that religion goes on about. It was something transcendent, something that touched everyone the same way; that did not differentiate one from another on the basis of economic status, sex, age, religion, race or place of birth. I discovered that it was inside myself and the more I tried to give it away, the more I had it in me. When I should have been in sorrow, I experienced joy. Sadness was pushed away by laughter at the antics of a puppy or the first steps of a neighbour’s baby. Somehow the evil that I sensed in the outer world could be pushed back and held at bay wherever I found myself. I could not defeat it, but I could temporarily chain it. It was power, Sylvain, a power that I could control with my mind…”
She stopped to pour another glass of wine for Sylvain and herself. Looking at him, she saw that he was neither bored nor offended. He wanted to hear more. So she would tell him more. She would finish her story, giving it to this man whom she truly loved; this person who owned her implicit trust.
“At first I called this power ‘love’ and it took me a long time to realize it could not be love. It had to be something else, something that could not be bought and sold on man’s marketplaces. Something that any individual could have; something that you could give and give and give and the more your gave, the more you had. It needed no encouragement and eschewed recognition. Empathy, I thought. But it wasn’t that either because empathy is something you have or don’t have. Like a sense of hearing, or smell. Empathy is more of an unawakened sense among the people of this world. No, what it was; what I had to settle for in the end, was compassion. Compassion, that’s it. So simple. Compassion begins as a choice, then becomes a life-long process of education. You teach yourself how to be compassionate by practising it.
“Life is given to us, as individuals, in the raw state. It is up to us to create with it. It is easy to reshape life into evil forms as I have observed and agonized over. But why should that be when it is just as easy to also reshape it into beautiful and life-affirming forms? It is no harder, no more difficult, to create good than it is to create evil but something grabs us before we get a chance to decide and choose and that something leads us into evil thoughts and evil acts must follow. What is that something, that power?
“I read something about that in church. There is a passage in the new testament that says in essence that our life’s struggle is not against people but rather against powers, authorities and forces of evil in heavenly realms. There resides something above us that makes us choose evil over good; that keeps us in ignorance so we will call evil good, and proceed to act in evil ways against one-another and against nature while generally unaware we are doing so.
“There is but one antidote to this evil, and that’s compassion. If we choose to become compassionate that evil saturation is weakened as it is being exposed. Thus compassion serves two purposes. One, it lends help and comfort to the afflicted wherever it passes and two, it exposes and shames evil and those who engage in it.”
May stopped and looked at Sylvain who seemed to be in a trance, waiting for more, though there would be no more. What more could be said that would not be repetitive and pointless?
Sylvain shook his head and stared at May. There were tears in his eyes and down his bristly cheeks. He knew her so well that she did not need to tell him the rest.
“You are leaving us, aren’t you May?”
“Yes, I think so Sylvain. I think maybe tonight, before midnight. My heart is full to bursting and won’t accept more. I need to go; to unburden myself, to breathe the ether among the stars. There are a couple of things I would like you to do for me, if you choose to take them on. I’ve arranged for you to take over the cottage if you wish it. The papers are at the notary and all signed. You may do as you please with the gate. The other thing is, I noticed a patch of wild strawberry blossoms on the way home. If you walk back towards the village center to the burnt stump, you will see a depression along the roadway there. That’s where there will be strawberries, lots of them this year. Just let the children know.
“I love you, Sylvain, and I expect we’ll see each other again soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of your earth life – there is nothing quite like it when you make the correct choice. Now you are going to have to go. Come back in the morning.”
They touched fingers and Sylvain turned without another word, walking away stooped shouldered through the open gate. He was quite sure he would not see May in a living earth body again. He was right. May died peacefully in her sleep, almost satisfied with her life. According to the records, she was sixty one years old at the time.
*Translation of French quote: “I think about impossible things; about people we do not see; I think so much that I am no longer sure in which world I live…”