The church is small and cold and dark. No candles grace the altar, no embroidered satin drape. A simple white cotton cloth awaits the Host. This is a poor place. Too small to have a women’s guild. Too humble to have a resident priest.
She kneels on the straw-filled pillow she’s brought from home, no kneelers here, the floor is made of stone. She is alone in gloom. Trying to pray. Wiping her eyes, her nose, with the back of her hand.
The simple service was to be at noon, followed by a gathering at their cottage. Her cottage now that her mother’s dead. She’s dusted and polished, purchased lager, baked a pie, invited the few friends they had, if she could call them that. They grudgingly said they’d come. If they could.
The rambunctious boys she’s paid to carry her mother’s coffin have yet to come. Even the priest is late. She considers waiting outside on the church steps where the villagers might see her and with their consciences’ pricked, wander into the church to shake her hand, offer condolence.
A wind is up, mourning around the corners of church with arctic chill, everyone home but her, their fireplaces filled with yellow heat, curling smoke. She bites her lip, knowing now that no one will show.
She slides back onto the well-worn pew, straightening her shoulders, sensing her mother’s hand against her spine, her ghostly presence whispering, “Don’t slouch,” as if anyone else would care.
But what the neighbors thought was not true. She and her mother saved the man because he was hurt, half frozen in a coffin of snow. There was nothing to label him the enemy. He never spoke, wore no uniform, and he was young, too young to be a soldier or a spy, and he was handsome. She fell a little in love with him, gently dabbing a cloth across his face, placing poultices on his wounds, the scent of dried herbs filling the air. The mother and the girl vowed to tell no one about the stranger, yet someone skulked around the house, peered through curtains not quite drawn, and turned them in.
The door at her back of the church suddenly opens, darkness turning murky gray, and she stands to see the four boys struggling with the coffin, their solemn faces window stained. The priest takes measured steps down the nave, his hands pressed together at his chest, staring straight ahead until he genuflects at the altar and turns. His eyes focus on the deep dark dusk at the back of the church, never glancing in her direction as he drones on, as if he were alone in this dank place, practicing for the funeral of someone more worthy than her mother.
The boys follow the priest, fighting their urge to tease each other with kick or jerk. She tightens her mouth, trying to squelch the urge to shout at them to stop, to take this seriously, to honor her mother, but she closes her eyes, willing herself to get through this, to not make a scene.
Finally, they are at the end. Placing the coffin on the rough-hewed stand.
The priest speaks in a cold, stern voice, his words falling like stinging ice, never once looking at the girl, asking for God’s forgiveness so that this woman, her mother, who aided the enemy would be accepted into heaven, despite her disloyalty to her country, to her people.
She decides she will stay in the chapel until the sun slants west in the sky, indifferent to the world outside, every tree, path, person, especially the empty rectangular hole behind the church, and returning home, she will pack her satchel and walk down the hard-packed road, away from a town that turned their backs on her mother and herself. She will find a fisherman and beg him to take her far away, to England or America. It doesn’t matter where, just away from this frozen place and the people, her people, with their frozen hearts.