PIPE ME TO PASTURES STILL.
Sunlight filtered weakly through the stained glass windows and settled on the wooden choir-stalls. Sister Elyzabef, who was polishing the stalls opposite, cast a glance over towards the faint area of light. As she raised her head to see, something else seemed to appear on the periphery of her vision. It appeared to be slightly lighter than the weak sunbeam that first caught her eyes; it also moved. She sat back on her haunches and her hands stopped their movement over the wooden stalls. The light grew brighter than that area surrounding it and a shape became defined within becoming more defined each moment. Once Sister Elyzabef became aware what was before her, she fainted and toppled sideways into the stalls with a dull thud.
- What was it she said she saw? asked Sister Saffron, walking slowly beside the Mistress of Novices, Sister Henry.
- An angel, replied Sister Henry in a low voice. Sister Saffron pulled a face and pursed her lips.
- And what does Reverend Mother say? Sister Saffron enquired stopping by the cloister wall and looking into the garth.
- She is of course wary. Too many visions could bring the Church Authorities into matters and that can mean...Well suspicions of witchcraft or suchlike, Sister Henry said in a whisper. A few years ago, a convent near by was turned upside down by the Authorities and eleven sisters confessed to worshipping the Devil and were burned... Sister Henry paused and glanced about her. Do you not remember that Sister? Sister Saffron nodded. A chill wind blew through the cloister and the two nuns drew their cloaks tightly about them. So Mother Abbess is being cautious, and will say little on the matter, until she and Sister Marya have time to talk to Sister Elyzabef themselves. The two nuns moved slowly along the cloister towards the church as the bell for Vespers tolled.
Sister Elyzabef lifted her head from the straw stuffed pillow on the bed. She was momentarily unaware where she was or what had happened. Then, gradually, piece by piece, it came back to her and she turned and sat on the edge of the bed. The cell was quiet. A chill seeped through the window and under the ill fitting door and made her shudder. She was certain she had heard a bell ring a little while before, but was uncertain of the time or for what Office the bell had tolled. Looking up at the window she saw the sky was darkening and the candle by the bed was almost at an end. Vespers, she muttered audibly to herself. Yet when she had been in the church polishing,it had been just after Terce...Had she been sleeping all that time? And where was everyone else? The cell became colder and she wrapped herself tightly in the sackcloth blanket, but still felt the chill. Someone had been in the cell, because her cloak and boots had been placed by the chair on the opposite wall; and in the dimness of the cell she thought she heard the faint sound of breathing as if someone was there in the cell with her. Someone watching. Watching silently.
The abbess sat at her desk. - And it was an angel you saw? she asked Sister Elyzabef who stood before her. The young nun nodded. She lowered her head and stared at the wooden floor. And have you seen an angel before? Mother Abbess asked patiently.
- No, Sister Elyzabef replied softly, still looking at the floor.
- Then how do you know it was angel? The abbess placed her hands on the desk and joined them as if to begin praying.
- It had wings and was tall and smiled at me. Sister Elyzabef lifted her head and shyly glanced at the abbess.
- It may have been Satan himself. He has wings and it is said he can appear in any guise he so chooses, the abbess suggested, coolly.
- But the angel smiled, Sister Elyzabef informed defensively.
The abbess shook her head, brought her hands together towards her lips, and tapped her lips a few times before lowering them again to the desk.
- I am sure Satan could smile if he so wished. The abbess stared hard at the young nun. I suggest my daughter that you may have imagined it all. Sister Elyzabef bit her lower lip and brought her hands together beneath her black habit; her hands clutched at each other nervously.
- No, no, I did see the angel, Sister Elyzabef stated. It was in the light from the church window, she added excitedly.
- Are you certain you saw this vision? The abbess sighed and shook her head again.
- I think so. Sister Elyzabef fingers dug into her hands anxiously.
- You don't know for certain? The abbess tapped her fingers on the desk and scrutinized the young nun's face. If Dom Glyntnor were to question you he would not be so gentle my daughter.
- Dom Glyntnor is coming here? Sister Elyzabef said nervously, her eyes widening with fear.
- He may if word of this vision of yours gets to him, the abbess declared firmly.
- He will not believe me. He will think I am... Sister Elyzabef broke off and visibly shook. Her face drained of colour and her nails drew blood from her hands beneath her habit.
The abbess shook her head again. - Tell me all that you saw in detail. She sat back in her chair and listened as the young nun began to narrate slowly what she had seen the day before while polishing in the church after Terce.
Sister Marya tolled the cloister bell. - Mother Abbess said you wanted to speak with me, Sister Elyzabef said as she approached Sister Marya who now let the bell rope hang still.
- Yes, Sister Elyzabef. The senior nun gestured to Sister Elyzabef to follow her along the cloister, which was cold and dimmed by fog weaving in and out like ghosts. When they had reached the north side of the cloister, they climbed the stairs that led to Sister Marya cell. Come in, here we can speak without being over heard. Sister Elyzabef stood by the oak desk that stood in the centre of the cell and watched as Sister Marya closed the door after checking no one had seen them enter. Right, sit there on the stool and then I want you to listen carefully, Sister Marya said firmly.
- Have I done something wrong? Sister Elyzabef enquired timidly.
- About this vision of an angel, Sister Marya said, I want you to forget about it.
- Forget about it? Sister Elyzabef reiterated slowly.
- Yes, forget all about what you saw. It is dangerous to propagate such things. The senior nun went to the window and peered down into the cloister garth, but could see nothing because of the fog.
- How can I forget about seeing an angel, Sister Elyzabef said watching Sister Marya at the window. One does not see an angel every day of one's life. She paused and tried to recall the vision, but her mind was unsure what she actually saw. She remembered the light, the even brighter light, and the feeling of warmth and then the lightness getting brighter and brighter and then she fainted.
- If Dom Glyntnor gets to hear of this vision of yours, he will come and investigate each one of us connected with you, and will interrogate us all thoroughly and in depth. Sister Marya turned round and stared hard at Sister Elyzabef. He may decide that it was Satan whom you saw and not an angel, and that could mean you being accused of witchcraft and Devil worshipping. She moved from the window and walked towards the young nun sitting on the stool. And that could well mean you being burned and maybe others in the community who have become too close to you. She peered hard into the eyes of Sister Elyzabef as if wanting to seek out her soul and shake it.
- But I did see an angel, Sister Elyzabef whispered softly.
Sister Marya shook her head. - I don't care if you saw Our Blessed Lord Himself, Elyzabef. Do you want to burn and others to burn with you, all because of some vision? She stood leaning over Sister Elyzabef breathing hard. The young nun lowered her head and put her hands on her knees.
- Is that what Mother Abbess wants me to do? Sister Elyzabef asked.
Sister Marya moved away and walked back to the window. She peered down into the foggy cloister below. - You must follow your own conscience, Sister Elyzabef. But think of the danger for us all. The young nun did not reply. Silence entered like a chill wind and filled the cell from wall to wall until both nuns shivered.
Five black charred stakes stood outside the convent walls. Dampened ash was barely visible through the thick fog of the cold morning, the day after Dom Glyntnor left. His visitation, torture and almost endless interrogation and the execution of the five nuns (or witches as he deemed them) had left the convent with a sense of fear and unreality. The cries and screams of four of the victims had been expected, but the silence of the fifth had sent a chill into the witnesses of the executions, and even Dom Glyntnor had seemed unnerved as he watched emotionless astride his horse. Now all was silent. Only a chill wind swept irreverently across the scene, barely disturbing the dark ashes and dull fog in its path.
The new abbess, whose election had been overseen by Dom Glyntnor himself, tapped with her knuckles the side of her chair and the community turned to face the altar for the beginning of Lauds. There was an eerie stillness in the church as the nuns began their chant. The vacant spaces in the choir-stalls had disappeared as each sister had moved one place up to fill the gap. All had witnessed the executions; all had seen and heard what had taken place. Each carried their own private grief and fears; each had felt death almost touch their cloaks, but pass by. Prayers took on a deeper sense of meaning, the charred stakes outside the walls symbolized a different kind of crucifixion.
Dom Glyntnor rode ahead of his party; he wanted to be alone. Something inside him was disturbed. He'd instigated and witnessed many an execution in his time, but the one they'd just left a day or so before had been different. He sat back in his saddle and let his horse lead the way to where he had, at that moment, no interest to know. He recalled the young nun, the one called Sister Elyzabef. He had been certain about her and her guilt; but something about her eyes, her voice and what she said, had, he now admitted to himself, made him uncertain. As he stared ahead into the drifting fog, he thought he could see her face, the eyes gazing, the lips moving. He sensed he heard her words in the chill wind about him. What were the words? he asked himself. He closed his eyes and the words swam about him.
- You may watch me burn, an innocent child, Dom Glyntnor, but one day, I shall watch you burn, in Hell, and merciful as I am, I shall have no power to release you from your torments as you now have mine. Those words, spoken by her to him as the fires were lit, echoed inside him, word by word, repeatedly.
He raised his hand and the party came to a stand still. He turned in his saddle and cast his eyes over those behind him. Each had a look of unease about them; each sat in their own silence with their own thoughts. He turned round again and peering into the thickening fog, moved his horse on again along the muddy track between the trees.
The newly elected abbess knelt in the church alone. All had happened so quickly that she felt uneasy even as she prayed. What if he returns again? she mused fearfully to herself. Whom will he interrogate next? Whom will he burn? She closed her eyes tightly. Every sound seemed to echo his presence, each footstep, his closeness. She had been elected, but had feared being so thrust into the centre of things. The executions had been a dreadful affair; she could still hear the cries and screams in her ears. And the silence of that Sister Elyzabef...That had really unnerved her. Even when the flames consumed her she uttered nothing. But just prior to the fire being lit she had said something to Dom Glyntnor, and those words had echoed all around them carried in the chill wind.
Sun light seeped weakly through the glass window of the church and fell against the choir-stalls. The abbess sensed the warmth, and opening her eyes, she saw that the light seemed brighter. Darkness lifted and sitting back on her heels, she thought the lightness was brighter, and that something moved that was brighter than the light surrounding it and when she realized what she had seen she fainted, falling forward to the floor with a heavy thump.
Dom Glyntnor watched as the fog cleared. The sun light caught him suddenly as it broke out from behind a moving cloud. The party behind him halted, as they watched him fall from his horse and thump hard to the damp ground. He rose to his knees and searching round like one blind sought for his horse. Members of the party dismounted and went to where he knelt.
- Can you see her? Dom Glyntnor asked. Can you hear her voice? He stared ahead of him, but to those of his party he seemed blind. Look! He shouted with a shocked expression on his face, pointing through trees ahead of them, She's there! But they could see nothing, except a dismal sun through the branches and the chill wind about them as they stood. Dom Glyntnor mumbled audibly to himself then fell sideward like a slumped sack.
- He's dead, one of the party stated as he moved the body over. The others stood motionless, staring at the shocked expression that had frozen on the face of Dom Glyntnor, as if the man had seen something that had unnerved him and undone him. The chill wind stopped. The sun shone through the branches of the trees like sunlight on an ocean, warm and glimmering. And birds sang again in the branches.