|Hilda closed the door behind her and curled up on the couch in front of the fire. Her eyes rested on the crib figures shining in the cold afternoon sunlight streaming through the large windows. It was the day after her arrival, and Mother had warned her she might be late for their first talk. She had an urgent visit to make, so Hilda was to wait in her office, although “office” was hardly the name she would give to this peaceful, panelled room. She stared into the flames crackling in the hearth, but the silence in the room only served to augment the sadness and loneliness mushrooming inside her, at the thought of Christmas without Nell. |
She rubbed her throbbing forehead. Part of the problem was the accident and its aftermath. She knew she had returned to school too soon. Her headaches were increasing in number and intensity, as were the nightmares and those awful “flashes”. They only lasted a split second, but the pictures projected onto her mind’s eye were so vivid that they made her feel sick. More and more details of that night were returning to her, none of them pleasant.
Her thoughts threatening to overwhelm her, she opened the book she had carried in with her, and was soon fathoms deep, only rousing when a cold hand stroked her cheek. She looked up into loving green eyes, and felt her anchor settle more firmly on the ocean floor. She was home, safe, tethered.
The nun’s face was glowing from the cold, her eyes snapping with vitality, and she made Hilda feel feeble and very old. Mother noted once more the sad, haunted eyes, the hollows at the temples, the stiffness in the shoulders. The time had come! She held up a finger.
“Five more minutes! I’m going for a pot of tea and then we talk.”
When she returned, Hilda was staring once more into the flames. Mother Abbess set down the tray, poured out the tea and settled close to her. She eyed the book on Hilda’s knee.
“What are you reading?”
Hilda looked down. Without warning, her eyes misted over as she stroked the picture on the front cover.
“It’s called Le Petit Prince.” Her voice wobbled treacherously. “It’s a children’s book, about a brave little prince. But it’s more than that – it’s about love and responsibility and friendship… and death.”
Mother Abbess’s eyes narrowed, and focused more intently on Hilda, who swallowed to ease the tightness in her throat.
“It’s always been one of my favourite books, but this particular copy is very special. Nell gave it to me the day we celebrated my coming of age as Headmistress.” She turned to look at the nun. “Remember me telling you about that day?” Mother Abbess nodded, remaining silent. “She wrote something beautiful in it, something that moved me to tears. I’ve never shown it to anyone before now, but... I think I’d like to share it with you.” Her voice broke. “How did she find the words to express the inexpressible?”
Opening the front cover she handed the book to the nun, who read the words written there by Nell Wilson and could only wonder, yet again, at this steadfast relationship:
My Hilda, just as the Little Prince ‘tamed’ the fox and so became responsible for him and learned to love him, so you ‘tamed’ me long ago with your gentleness and serenity, and made me whole. Your integrity, compassion and courage, your deep faith in a loving God, have inspired and challenged me over the years to be more than I once thought I could be. More than that, they have filled me with such love for you that, as we have grown ever closer, you no longer seem a separate person but a vital part of my own self. With God, you have become the very meaning of my soul.
Tears dimming her eyes, Mother read again the words that said so much about the character of two extraordinary women. Hilda must indeed have felt annihilation when she lost Nell. No wonder she refused to pray! How did you recover from such a blow? She handed the book back, compassion in her eyes.
“I see why you might find it hard to give up some of Nell’s presents, sweetheart. I, too, would never want to part with a book that held such a moving compliment.” She looked into the haunted eyes. “Nell still feels all that, you know. Her great love for you hasn’t vanished. She's still your anam cara, as you're hers, even if physically she's gone.”
“Anam cara?” Hilda'S interest was piqued.
“To the Irish, an anam cara is a soul friend, one who loves you and gives you companionship, wisdom and support on your pilgrimage through life. One who accepts you as you are and brings you closer to God; one who shines the light of their soul on the loved one, as you and Nell did for each other.”
Hilda’s eyes clung to hers as she absorbed something she had never heard before, but which gave expression to all she had shared with Nell. Mother clasped Hilda’s hand.
“The Irish believe that when two people become close, an ancient circle closes between them, and the two souls begin to flow together. Rather like Nell’s words about you not being separate people.”
Hilda’s lips trembled on the edge of tears, but she refused to give in to them, much to the nun’s dismay.
“Two souls flowing together… it used to feel like that, sometimes.”
Mother Abbes smiled into the vulnerable eyes searching hers.
“Truly, sweetheart, you were blessed to find each other, but even more blessed to have the strength to give to each other in every possible way, to offer each other the beauty of your spirits.”
“It is a sweet thing, friendship, a dear balm,
A happy and auspicious bird of calm….
A smile among dark frowns – a gentle tone
Among rude voices, a belovèd light,
A solitude, a refuge, a delight.
The mellow voice trembled with tears, and Mother listened in awe to this hymn of praise to Nell Wilson, who had been everything to Hilda, and left her lost and lonely.
“My dear child, I've heard few words that have been so expressive of what true friendship means. I can make a guess as to how they speak to you.”
To hide the naked longing in her eyes, Hilda looked down at the book. Mother Abbess tapped the open page.
“Tell me about this book you love so much. What’s so special about it?”
“It’s about a dauntless little prince, who made the stars laugh for a pilot who had broken down in the desert.” She heard a slight gasp from the nun at this outlandish statement. “He lived, this little prince with the loving heart, all alone on a tiny asteroid far out in space. His only amusement was to watch sunsets. He was so lonely one day that he watched forty-three.”
Hilda flicked through the pages. “One day a seed blew from somewhere and a beautiful rose grew on his asteroid. He tended her and loved her, but she was selfish and wilful, so he ran away because he thought she didn’t love him. How he regretted it! Elle m’embaumait et m’éclairait! Mais j’étais trop jeune pour savour l’aimer! She perfumed and lit up my life! But I was too young to know how to love her!” Tears were clogging up Hilda’s throat. “Nell did that for me – lit up my life,” she whispered. The nun’s heart ached for her.
“Except, child, you weren’t too young to know how to love her.” Mother Abbess’s voice was very firm on that point, and it steadied Hilda.
“He travelled from planet to planet, searching for he knew not what, and finally arrived on Earth, only to find more loneliness until he met a fox, who told him: For you, I am a fox like a hundred thousand foxes, but if you tame me, we’ll need each other. For me, you’ll be unique in all the world.”
“So that’s why Nell used the word tamed in her inscription.”
“The fox told him: On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible aux yeux. We only really see with our hearts. What matters is invisible to the eyes. The fox added: It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes her so important. You become responsible forever for those you tame.”
Hilda closed her eyes. I can’t do this. It’s too close to home. Oh Nell, dear heart…
She felt the nun’s hand on hers. “Yes, you can do it, sweetheart. You were responsible for each other, poured out your love on each other, as the little prince did on his rose. Love… friendship... responsibility… I must read this book.”
Time to push, time to break through, she decided. Time to get Hilda to crack, and release the awful tension within! It might cause a complete collapse, but it had to be done.
“What about death?” she asked, softly, inexorably.
Hilda stared into the fire, lips trembling, heart beating wildly. Mother Abbess waited, and Hilda knew that this woman, this shepherd of her little flock, would wait there patiently all day, if necessary.
With shaking hands, she turned the pages. “He met the airman and they became friends. They talked and laughed, and tamed each other. When the airman mended his plane and was able to go home, the prince said he, too, must return home to his rose, for she would be lonely. But it’s a lot further… a lot harder… It’ll seem as if it hurts… as if I’m dying. The airman realises you risk pain and grief if you allow yourself to be loved: I was holding him in my arms, comme un petit enfant, yet it seemed to me that he was falling vertically into an abyss and there was nothing I could do to hold him back... I could feel his heart beating like that of a wounded bird dying of gunshot wounds…”
Her voice very low. Mother Abbess waited. They were coming to the heart of it now! She had to wait a long time, listening to the logs cracking and hissing in the quietness of the room, for Hilda was staring down at the picture of the little prince in the airman’s arms as though her very life depended on it. Was she remembering her dream of Nell in a foreign hospital ward, a wounded bird, dying…
Taking a deep breath, Hilda turned the page, swallowed and read in a whisper,
“You see, it’s too far, I can’t take this body… But it’ll be like an old, empty shell. There’s nothing sad about old, empty shells…”
The book tumbled to the floor, unnoticed. The nun’s arms went round Hilda as the walls came crashing down. She buried her face in Mother Abbess’s shoulder and wept brokenly, hearing those last words over and over:
There was nothing sad about old, empty shells. Oh, but there was, there was, when it was Nell’s empty shell, her loving spirit fled elsewhere, leaving Hilda’s soul alone, so alone…
Mother Abbess cradled Hilda and listened to the quiet weeping with tears in her own eyes. Every time this gentle woman fought her grief with grace and fortitude, she got knocked back down and her sorrow rose up again in all its raw and bitter agony.
The tears eased. Hilda lay quiet against the nun.
“Hilda, I’m going to lay you down. You’re exhausted. I saw it in your eyes this morning.”
The nun settled the cushions in place and lowered Hilda on to them, then rose to her feet and unearthed a blanket from one of her capacious cupboards. Tucking it round Hilda with a soft murmur, she settled back on the couch and held one cold hand. Hilda’s eyes opened and she gazed across the crib figures into the flames flickering behind them. Mother Abbess waited. There was more to come. Of that she was absolutely certain!
Hilda loosened her hand and reached out to touch one of the angels with a delicate finger. The next instant, the angel was grasped and held close to her, as though somehow it could help. Mother Abbess held her breath, scared to startle the distraught woman. Hilda’s fingers slowly unfurled and she stared at the exquisite figure. A broken whisper was torn from trembling lips.
“Nell was my guardian angel, watching over me, just like this one… She could make me smile or infuriate me… but she always made my day brighter… held me so close to her heart. But it’s all gone, Mother! All that was precious about her… all that gave light to my life... it’s gone! I sometimes feel like an old, empty shell myself. The days are so long… and so lonely.”
She raised eyes that lacerated the nun’s heart with pain. She fell to the floor and pulled Hilda into her arms.
“No, it isn’t gone, sweetheart! Nell is still your guardian angel, still watchful, still waiting to make you laugh or to scold you – because, oh boy, sometimes you need scolding, love. She’s still giving you light, else how could you pass that light and love on to other lives in the way you do?”
Hilda lay still in her arms, but the nun could feel the rigidity, the tension. She took a deep breath. Time for courage to voice her own feelings. Possibly, just possibly, it would ease the pain in Hilda’s heart.
“In the hospital, you said you'd come to look on me as a mother. Sweetheart, I should tell you, you've opened up a place inside me that's been sealed for many a long year. I now love you like the daughter I never had. You’ve given me so much in the short time I’ve known you. You give light and hope wherever you are, Hilda. Look what you did for Ellie last night. Such a little thing, giving her the bambino but it meant so much to her. I can’t take your mother’s place, but… if I could, I'd take this terrible grief from you, take it into my own heart.”
Hilda’s body shook as she tried to strangle the sobs that were once more threatening to erupt.
“Hang on to me, child. You need some port in the storm of all that has happened. You can’t bear it all alone as you’ve been doing since the crash. Even the Lord Himself cried out in fear of what was to come, in the garden of Gethsemane. He needed His friends with Him. He asked them to help, remember. But they fell asleep and left Him alone. I won’t do that, I promise. None of us will. We'll stay and keep watch.”
The shaking grew worse. Mother Abbess pushed again. It had to come out! This self-control of Hilda’s was doing too much damage.
“Let go, child. I don’t care how much you cry. That’s what a mother’s arms are for. Just stop being so brave! It’s killing you!”
Hilda’s chest heaved against the nun as she tried yet again to keep control, but she could no longer hold out. The nun’s words had crawled under the barrier, penetrated the defences and done their explosive work on that iron will. The angel fell to the floor unheeded, great sobs tore out of her and she clung convulsively to her anchor. The sobs were deep and wrenching, jarring her body with their violence. Mother Abbess held her tighter, letting her know she was safe and secure. This had been building since the crash, and she had let no one in, except perhaps Gwynneth, a little. There had been few tears at the hospital, once the initial shock had worn off, but, now the barricades had been smashed yet again, Mother Abbess intended they should stay down. She would trample them underfoot, so they could never be raised again.
The desperate sobbing died away, leaving Hilda trembling and helpless in the nun’s arms. She could no longer fight this tenacious woman. The Nell-sized hole inside was gaping wide again, hollow with pain – but the loving strength of the nun’s character, the beauty of the nun’s words, now surrounded the hole and prevented it gaping wider, giving her a moment of ease in her long loneliness.
Mother Abbess held her precious burden long after the trembling had ceased, trying to infuse some of her own strength into Hilda, trying to reassure her how much she was loved. Hilda’s breathing grew quieter, gentler. The nun felt the body in her arms soften and relax into sleep. And no wonder! The terrible weeping, the long journey yesterday, the headaches, the nightmares, the frailty left over from the crash, and the tension of the approaching festivities, had all weakened her. Complete collapse was still a possibility, especially after this vast release.
Mother Abbess loosened her arms, but Hilda did not stir. Laying her down, the nun stroked back the loosened strands of hair and looked with compassion on the ravaged face. Taking out her handkerchief, she wiped away the tears with great tenderness and drew the blanket up round the thin shoulders. She bent to pick up the book and angel, both of which had helped her break through Hilda’s barriers. She held the angel up to her face.
Is that you, Nell? Were you so desperate to help her? We need you at the moment. Hilda called you her guardian angel, as I suspect she was yours, for how could such a loving woman be anything else? Please watch her carefully for me. Walk beside her in this dark place, as you walked beside her though life.
She placed the angel close to Hilda, so she could see it when she woke, and searched the white face with a fervent prayer in her heart. To God? To Nell? Who could say? All she knew was that Hilda needed understanding and support, and who better to give it than the two who loved her most?
Glancing at the clock as she rose to her feet, Mother Abbess saw with a start that it was half past five. Where had the afternoon gone? Sitting down heavily at her desk, she gazed at the opposite wall for long moments, deep in thought. Reaching a decision, she picked up the phone and asked Sister Infirmarian to join her. The latter was soon there, having heard the gravity in her Superior’s voice. Mother indicated the couch. Sister Infirmarian leaned over the back to assess Hilda’s white, tear-stained face. Reaching down, she touched a finger to Hilda’s neck, feeling the pulse, then turned back to Mother Abbess. They moved over to the window where the latter explained.
“I’ve seen it coming since she arrived yesterday,” said the Infirmarian. “I’m just glad you were able to penetrate those defences of hers. That should help.”
“It took some doing, I’ll admit. She’s pushed herself far too hard since the crash. I know they’re all worried back at school.”
“They’re right to be worried. Her pulse, as well as her face, tell of someone at the end of her tether.”
“Her grief again! She needs to talk, about the crash, about her partner – but she resists me all the way. Jack Maynard and Matron say there are still problems from the crash, and she could so with a period of enforced rest. Like you, they think she's reached the end of her tether.”
Sister Infirmarian raised one eyebrow in amusement. “And who’s going to enforce that rest, tell me?”
“I am - with your help!” The Infirmarian snickered softly. “But not for long. She would eat her heart out if we left her idle, so I have things in mind. I…”
A cry from the couch stopped her mid-speech. In a flash, she was kneeling on the floor as Hilda tossed restlessly. Words tumbling out of her.
“Ian… please, take care…it’s too windy… Please slow down…. Ian!”
Her voice rose sharply on the last word, her hands gripping the blanket, her head tossing from side to side, as though seeking help. Mother Abbess soothed her.
“It’s okay, Hilda, it’s okay. Ian’s fine. You’re both fine. Lie still and rest, sweetheart.”
Her voice and hands were tenderness itself as she covered Hilda again and stroked the white face. Hilda quietened and the nun looked up, to see the Infirmarian watching with consternation in her eyes. With another sigh, she rose and moved to join the other nun back at the window.
“Was that look for me - or Hilda?”
“Both,” responded the Infirmarian succinctly. “You’re le…”
“I’m letting my emotions get the better of me?” Mother turned to look into the dark garden. “I know, but just at the moment she needs so much help.” She paused to gather her thoughts. “She needs firmness, to over-rule that stubborn nature of hers, yes. But, dear God, Pauline, she needs love more than anything. Not admiration or respect – she has all that at school! – just love, unconditional love, like she received from Nell Wilson. She needs to know it’s safe to be herself, to be the Hilda who feels broken and heart-weary, not the Miss Annersley who’s always in control. She needs to know that whatever she feels, whatever she says, however crazy it sounds, it’s all part and parcel of her grief – but that there are still people who love her.”
“Just be careful,” warned the other nun. “If she relies on you too much….”
“She won’t. She realises that herself. She withdrew from me last night when she saw what she was doing. She told me in the hospital she's come to look on me as a mother. So where does that leave me? She lost her own mother at such a young age, and you never recover from that. You spend your whole life subconsciously looking for her.”
Rubbing her eyes, Mother Abbess walked over and stood staring down at Hilda. She loved this brave, sensitive woman as she had loved no one since her own young womanhood. Somehow, with her delicacy of heart and mind, Hilda had penetrated the shell that all nuns wrapped round themselves in self-protection, to stop themselves coming too close to another. She knew God would not hold this love against her! Hilda was so fragile at the moment that she needed a mother’s giving, unselfish love more than she needed a Mother Superior. And Mother intended she should have it. She also needed some bullying, but was that not what a mother’s love provided? It might cause problems when Hilda entered, and they had to readjust their relationship, but that was another eighteen months away. They were both intelligent enough to work something out.
Sister Infirmarian waited patiently. She had great faith in her Abbess, as she now knew people at the school had great faith in Hilda. She had thought Kate Stuart one of a kind until she met Hilda. Two women of such strength, integrity and compassion did not often come one’s way.
Mother Abbess readjusted the covers, walked back over to the window and looked the other nun in the eye.
“I will do whatever it takes, Pauline. Do you trust me?” The Infirmarian nodded. “And I trust Hilda. We’ll establish a different kind of relationship when she enters, but I won’t let her down now.”
Even though the Infirmarian was not her deputy, they understood each other perfectly. They had entered at the same time and from the same profession, had worked closely together for years and often sought advice from each other, gave each other balance. Now the nursing sister smiled affectionately.
“You will do whatever you want, despite all I could say. I know you for being strong-willed and also highly intelligent. I, too, trust Hilda, and think she needs what perhaps only you can give her - the compassionate glance of one who's already travelled the same dark and painful road.”
“But not three times, Pauline,” sighed Mother. “Not three hard, bitter times. How do you survive?”
She still remembered, with a shiver, that heart-rending cry of Hilda’s in the San:
"Sometimes, Mother, I think I’ll go crazy just with the need to hold her once more. Just once! Is that too much to ask?"
Ah, the human need for simple hugs – so much more important than passionate embraces! So much better at holding back the dark! Who held Hilda now? Who did she hold? God was always there, but one could not touch Him, nor physically feel His loving arms, and sometimes one needed so desperately the warmth of a human touch. Even nuns felt that need! Even Mother Abbesses!
Staring at their reflections in the dark window, she forced her thoughts back to the present. “Is the inner room in the Infirmary free?”
“The one with the two beds?” asked a startled Sister Infirmarian. “Yes, why?”
“I think Hilda should sleep there for a night or two. I’ll stay with her.”
“What?” gasped the other nun.
Mother turned to her. “Gwynneth told me Hilda's having nightmares some nights, not sleeping other nights. I saw her face this morning. I don’t think she slept a wink last night. There’s more to it than just nightmares, though, a lot more that she’s not revealing. If I’m there when she dreams, I can help her, force her to speak about the crash, which she wouldn’t do in the hospital.”
She tried to make the other woman understand. “She’s damming it up, Pauline, it’s poisoning her. She’s worn out. She needs….”
There was a sharp cry from Hilda that almost stopped both their hearts. She was sitting bolt upright, staring into the fire, her eyes wide and frightened.
“Ian… the car! It’s on fire! Ian…” She was calling loudly, desperately, perspiration beading her forehead. “Ian, please, jump out before it explodes... Jump!” she shrieked.
Her hand reached out to a car no one else could see, a car going up in flames. Mother Abbess took her forcefully by the shoulders.
“Hilda! Look at me! There’s no fire, sweetheart. Ian's fine. You know that!”
Hilda still stared frantically towards the hearth, the flames. Mother Abbess took her friend’s face in her hands, forcing her eyes away from the fire and towards herself. She gentled her voice.
“Hilda, Ian's fine, you’re fine. Wake up, love. You’re safe, here, in my arms.”
The wild fear left Hilda’s eyes. She crumpled against the nun, shuddering violently. Mother Abbess held her for a few moments, took her by the shoulders again.
“Hilda, look at me. Does this happen every time you go to sleep?”
“Yes,” gasped Hilda.
“Once a night, twice?”
“Every time I fall asleep, I dream of the crash, or that walk down the mountain – and Nell – but it’s all mixed up, and terrifying, and when I wake up I can’t bear to lie down again in the dark, only for it to happen all over again. So I just leave the light on – read – or pace the floor…”
Her words were tripping over themselves in her efforts to explain.
“And during the day?” asked Mother Abbess, determined to get it all out. “What happens during the day? Are you getting flashes of what happened? Just for a few seconds?”
“All day long,” was the wild response.
Hilda buried her face in the nun’s shoulder again.Nothing could have told the nun more clearly just how much she had penetrated Hilda’s calm outer shell, for she would never normally give herself away like this.
“Why haven’t you told anyone?” she queried, her voice now dangerously quiet.
“Who could I tell? What would have been the point?”
“The point, my very dear ninny,” the nun said with some force, “is that Jack, or Gwynneth, could have offered you their own help, or found you some professional help. Instead, your silence and sheer obstinacy have brought you near to collapse. How much longer did you think you could carry on in this way and still do your job efficiently?”
She held Hilda to her a moment or two, letting the harsh words soak in, then took her by the shoulders again, forcing the trembling woman to look into her implacable green eyes. She spoke clearly and distinctly, as though to a rebellious infant.
“Sister Infirmarian is going to bring us some dinner, which you're going to eat! After that, you're going to talk. If I have to keep you here all night, you're going to describe to me, in minute detail, all you remember of that night. You'll do the same tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that, until we have excised this from your soul.” She eyed Hilda speculatively. Her next words would hurt. “You'll place yourself under obedience to me as your Superior in this. If you don’t, I'll have no option but to refuse you entry as a member of this order.”
The silence in the room vibrated with tension. Hilda’s eyes searched the obdurate face with dawning hope. Permission had been given. She no longer needed to be strong. This woman would be her strength. Isn’t that what mothers were for? She nodded, as great, fat tears welled up in her eyes, splashing onto Mother Abbess’s sleeves. With a groan, the nun drew her close again. Who would ever guess, among her friends at school, that Hilda could give way like this? But oh, how necessary it was!
Sister Infirmarian merely smiled grimly to herself and went off to find the food. Mother Abbess had pulled no punches that time!
Sister Infirmarian was kind, and brought Hilda merely a small bowl of soup and a soft roll. She also produced a bottle of wine. Mother poured a generous measure into the soup, saying forcefully, “Eat!” Which Hilda did. Her Superior had spoken. All she had to do was obey. She washed down the remnants of the roll with the wine poured into her glass, also a generous measure.
The nun hastily swallowed her own meal, although without the wine, this being Advent. There was no small talk, just an expectant silence. Every few minutes, Hilda would look Mother's way and quail at the calm certainty in those vivid eyes. She was learning, late in life, just how the girls in school felt at her own hands, when she laid just such obedience on them. It was not pleasant, and yet at the same time it was very reassuring. This woman wanted only that she be whole. Was that not what she, Hilda, desired for the girls in her care?
Sister Infirmarian returned with a pot tea,taking away the dirty dishes. Mother Abbess poured out two cups, ladled sugar into one and passed it over.
“Drink, sweetheart.” Thee gentleness was back.
She wondered to herself how Hilda remained upright. She looked like death: her face white and taut, her eyes wells of weariness and sorrow, swollen with weeping, and underscored by deep purple smudges. Was she right to insist on this tonight? Would Hilda get through it without collapsing? Hilda herself sipped the hot, sweet tea and gazed into the flames, her thoughts flying to a cold, dark mountain side hundreds of miles away.
Mother Abbess was having none of it. Thoughts were part of the problem. Thoughts were doing the damage. Near collapse or not, now was the time! She sat on the couch by Hilda, removed the cup and saucer.
“Talk! Stop brooding, and spill out all those wild thoughts of yours. I don’t care how stupid or nonsensical they sound. You’re not the Headmistress here. You don’t have to impress me or show me your courage. I already know all that. What I want are your fears, your hurts, all those things you’ve buried deep. I want the lot!”
Hilda turned her head to stare at her. She had never heard the nun talk like this, but it was helping, oh, how it was helping! It gave her permission to be something other than the calm, collected Headmistress. She thought she'd already laid herself bare to this woman. Now, she could go down another layer, open up as she'd only ever opened up to Nell. Open up and not be found wanting. Unconditional love! So rare, so life-giving!
Mother Abbess held the blue-grey eyes with her own steadfast, green ones.
“Let me start you off. What did you feel as that car went over the edge? Ian told me he heard not one single cry of fear from you.”
Hilda turned away to look into the fire. Without warning, she pulled the pins out of her hair, letting it tumble free. Thrusting the pins into her astonished friend’s hands, she buried her face in her hands, the hair falling forward to hide her. Still those walls, thought Mother Abbess, wryly.
Hilda’s first words, when they finally came, startled the nun, though a moment’s reflection made her realise how silly that was. Hilda’s trust in God was absolute!
“Safe,” she whispered. “I felt safe. I knew Ian and I were held in those everlasting arms, that whether we lived or died, we were safe.” She raised her head. The nun saw the truth in her eyes. “All I was worried about was you.” Mother Abbess’s eyes widened. “I knew what it would do to you if Ian were killed.”
“And if you had been killed….”
The nun’s lips formed the words, but no sound came. Her eyes told Hilda what her lips were trying to say. Hilda just shook her head, but her eyes locked on to the nun’s.
“I didn’t want to die and be with Nell – not at that point!” she added, her throat dry as she thought of her feelings later that night, when she felt Nell close by. “I just wanted Ian to be safe for you. And, for some weird reason, I thought of all the problems it would cause at school, if I were to be killed.”
“It was strange,” she added, after a long pause. “I did cry out, despite what Ian says. As we tipped over that edge, I panicked! The car was hurtling down that hill at breakneck speed, we were jolting all over the place - then, without warning, I felt - I felt as though there was all the time in the world, time for my thoughts, time to tell God I accepted whatever His will was in this, time to tell him to take care of you and the school, time to be aware of every tree that passed…”
Mother Abbess was stunned. Surely God walked hand-in-hand with this fearless woman! Her own feelings of terror the day Hilda was shot, and the calmness Hilda had shown, still left the nun unprepared for this level of trust. She reflected, yet again, how little she measured up to this new daughter of hers. No wonder Hilda was able to hide her devastating grief. No wonder she was able to smile when her heart was breaking. But, if there had been no fear during the accident, why the terrible nightmares? Why the fear now, when it was all over? Was it the terrible walk down the mountain, while suffering from a deep concussion and lacerated feet?
Hilda looked away into the fire. “What I don’t understand is why I should keep seeing that tree, and why the dreams are so violent. I had no time for fear in that car, and yet now I wake up terrified, time after time.”
“I have no answers, sweetheart.” Mother Abbess laid a gentling hand on Hilda’s stiff shoulders. “Perhaps, subconsciously, you keep thinking of what might have happened, even if you weren’t frightened at the time. Perhaps what occurred afterwards on that road is the cause of it all. Although, you were in such a dreadful state, it’s a wonder you remember any of it. Are you really so frightened in your dreams?”
“Petrified!” Hilda buried her face again. “So many awful things happen to Ian that I’m shouting out “Help us!” over and over again, and I wake up to find myself crying it out loud. The wonder is that Rosalie or Jeanne don’t hear me from upstairs! In my dreams, I’m screaming at God, raging at Ian… oh, a hundred things I never felt at the time – and don’t feel now, when I’m awake.”
“My dear, no one knows why the nightmares after such a shock, such a terrifying experience. I’m no Joseph, able to interpret your dreams, but I suspect a lot of it is your renewed grief for Nell…”
The nun stopped, mid-sentence. She had felt Hilda’s body flinch as though she'd been struck. The nun leaned forward, her hand moving to clasp Hilda more firmly round the shoulders.
“Hilda? Whatever it is, spill it out.”
Hilda’s face stayed buried, tremors ran up and down her body. Her breath catching on a sob, she spoke haltingly.
“Whenever my mind returns to that moment of panic, I think of Nell in the earthquake. When the walls and roof fell in on her… did she panic, like me? Did she regret going back in? Did time slow down for her, too, giving her time to feel each of those concrete blocks thudding down on her, crushing her?”
Her hands writhed through her hair as though she were in agony. A whisper came.
“Did she feel lonely? I keep wondering why she had to die so far away… I should have been there to hold her.”
The nun was silenced. She had asked for everything and she was getting it. In spades! One accident bringing back all the fears of another one. No wonder Hilda was hurting. She drew the shaking body close, trying to still the tremors.
“And you feel guilt all over again. You lost that a while back, but your own accident has caused it to raise its ugly head again. Oh, my poor child!”
She had to pause, for her own voice wobbled. She stroked Hilda’s loose hair, while she gathered her thoughts.
“Remember how angry you were at God those first two weeks after Nell’s death? We thought you’d got over that, but perhaps not altogether. Perhaps, just perhaps, your subconscious is afraid to let you go one feeling anger at God for the manner of Nell’s death, for taking her away from you, so it's being expressed in your dreams about this accident. You’re an expert at suppressing things – none better! In the long run it does no good. It has to come out in some way.”
Hilda raised her head, as though listening, then tore herself from the nun’s loving arm, stood on trembling legs and walked over to the window. She leaned her head against the cold pane of glass and closed her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice had sunk very low. Mother Abbess had to strain to hear.
“But I don’t feel any anger at God now. He didn’t cause the earthquake. I don’t think I even feel guilt now, at not being there for Nell. You scotched that for me. The questions just go round and round, without any meaning. All I really feel, when I’m awake, is numbness, an empty ache, loneliness….”
Her voice trailed away and the silence of the room was intensified by the ticking of the grandfather clock, and the hiss and crackle of the fire. Trauma, physical pain, exhaustion, diagnosed the nun. No wonder she feels numb and empty! Long moments passed and neither woman moved, then Hilda lifted her head and stared out into the darkness. She turned slowly towards the nun as though every bone in her body hurt, her eyes filled with a harrowing, haunting sorrow.
“Is that why Nell keeps trying to drag me off the road in my dreams?” she whispered, her hand trying to ease the ache in her throat. “Is that why she keeps telling me to give up, that I’ll never make it? Is it due to my fear about what she herself went through? Or is it my loneliness talking?” She swallowed several times. “Every night she tells me it would be better to go with her and we'll be together for always, that she m… misses me and wants me near. She keeps trying to drag me off the road, and she’s so strong I can’t fight her. She tells me to leave Ian to his fate, that he'll die anyway, whatever I do. I know it’s nonsense, but, in the middle of the night, all I can think is that she wants me to leave Ian on his own in that car, because…. she was also left on her own as the building fell.”
Mother Abbess felt such a pang in her heart she wondered it kept beating. How did Hilda survive this in her fragile state? How did she get through the nights? Unable to move, she waited for more, watching Hilda’s despairing face.
“She’s killing me, Mother. On the road that night she was supporting me, encouraging me to keep going and get help, telling me Ian needed me. In my other dreams, earlier, before the crash, she encouraged me to live, to grow, She told me I still had work to do. Now… now, she’s killing me slowly, by degrees. Night after night the emptiness grows, the loneliness gets worse, because I’ve lost Nell, my Nell. This one isn’t the Nell I love.”
Hilda had been staring through Mother Abbess, not really seeing her. Without warning, her face crumpled. She held out a trembling hand to the nun for help. In an instant, loving arms were enfolding her. Hilda held herself rigid a moment longer, then coldness swept over her, her knees gave way and she would have fallen, but for the nun’s strength. She had reached the end of that tether mentioned by Sister Infirmarian. Mother Abbess lowered the body in her arms gently to the floor, moved to her desk and rang her handbell. Sister Infirmarian would not have gone far, was probably outside keeping intruders at bay! The nun threw the bell down and dropped to the floor beside the still figure, and saw Hilda’s eyes watching her. With a pang, she realised the look was one of shame.
“It’s alright, sweetheart,” she whispered, stroking Hilda’s hair. “Please don’t feel guilty. You’ve forced that body of yours way beyond its limits these last weeks. Once you relaxed your guard, it just let go. It needs rest, what with headaches, sleepless nights, nightmares, those horrible flashbacks, the lingering shock of the accident, and now all this emotion, this weeping tonight. Just lie still and try to relax.”
Hilda, however, struggled to sit up, although her limbs seemed not to belong to her. “No, I can manage. If you’ll just…”
“Do as you’re told, Hilda!” came the firm voice of Sister Infirmarian, bending over the two women. “Were you not put under obedience? Mother and I will do the work. Let your body go limp and we’ll carry you over to the couch.”
Between them they lifted Hilda and settled her back on the couch, tucking the blanket round her. Sister Infirmarian’s fingers found her pulse, while Mother threw another log on the fire. Hilda was silenced by the combined weight of these two women’s strong wills. Too weak to fight, bones dissolving like water, head throbbing painfully, she lay biddable. Glancing up at the other nun, who shook her head in warning, Mother sat on the couch and took a cold hand in her warm one. She smiled into Hilda’s still eyes.
“I know this is a shock to you, love, but you mustn’t feel ashamed of collapsing like that. It needed to happen, you needed to learn a lesson about just how far you can push this body of yours. It’s humiliating, isn’t it, to find out how weak you are?”
She smiled lovingly, but there was no answering smile. She could take a good guess at what this strong-minded, stubborn woman must be feeling.
“You ought to be in bed, for I suspect, apart from anything else, that your head's aching abominably. There’ll be no more talking, despite what I said earlier. Your body's taking its revenge for the treatment you’ve meted out to it, I’m afraid, and needs peace and quiet.”
There was still no response from Hilda. Her eyes were watchful, but her body absolutely immobile, her white face almost blank.
“Sister here's going to take you off to the Infirmary for a couple of nights, to keep an eye on you.I think you should go right now….” She stopped, appalled, as wild panic flared in Hilda’s eyes. “Hilda, what is it?”
Even as she asked the anxious question, the self-control was back, the eyes closed, the emotions hidden. Mother considered the white mask, and her own perceptive nature picked up the problem. She could have kicked herself!
“Hilda, look at me,” she said in a soft voice.
Hilda’s eyes opened. The panic was gone, but wariness had taken its place. Sister Infirmarian moved away. It was not her place to intrude between two souls who understood each other so well. Mother was perfectly capable of working her magic all on her own. The nun softened her voice even more and stroked the white cheek.
“My darling, I’m so sorry. That was insensitive of me. You’re frightened of being left alone in the dark. Now that you’ve told me, brought it all to the surface, it’s looming even larger, isn’t it?” Hilda’s mouth relaxed a little. “I was going to add that I’ll be sleeping with you. We’ll fight these demons together. But that’s for later. It’s right now that’s worrying you, isn’t it?”
Mother Abbess sat in thought a moment.
“I think you should rest quietly here until I go to bed?” The white face relaxed somewhat, and began to look ashamed, but the nun quashed that on the instant. “Don’t you dare, young lady! I know it’s not like you to show fear – but I need to know what you’re thinking, if I’m to help you. Isn’t that why you’re here? There's nothing, nothing, of which to be ashamed. Are you hearing me? Nothing at all! This fear is perfectly normal.”
A tear trickled down Hilda’s cheek as she stared at this woman who cared so much. Mother caught it with a tender finger.
“Oh, love, you can’t be strong all the time. Let us in, let us help! Stay there for now and sleep, if you can. I've some work to do before I retire, so I’ll be close if you need me. Will that help?”
“I’m so sorry.” Hilda’s voice was hardly to be heard.
Mother made no reply, other than to lean forward and kiss the damp cheek. She tucked the blanket more securely round Hilda and sat watching the white face and bleak eyes. The Infirmarian nodded, satisfied, and glided from the room to prepare the beds and move Hilda’s night things to the infirmary. Mother was doing exactly what was needed. To have got through so soon was remarkable, given Hilda’s nature, but her collapse had been imminent from the moment she walked in the door. Now just get her talking more about the accident…
Mother herself was astonished she had breached Hilda’s walls so soon, but Hilda had not anticipated that her future Superior could be quite so tough! She had been in desperate need of the release, but the implosion had been greater than either of them anticipated. The nun picked up the angel she set down a little earlier, and placed it in Hilda’s hand, wrapping her cold fingers round it.
“Let Nell help you.” Her loving eyes held Hilda’s. “Your Nell wasn’t - isn’t - in those nightmares. You know she would never do anything to hurt you. Think back to what she told you in those other dreams. It’s not your time yet, you still have work to do. She’s like that angel, guarding you, loving you, longing to heal your emptiness, your loneliness. Hang on to her, sweetheart. She’s strong, just as you are, or will be again.”
Hilda opened her hand and stared at the beautiful carving with its tender, tranquil face. She stroked the wings and murmured almost to herself,
“When I was tiny, my mother used to tell me that we all have angels in Heaven who are always sending us messages, little love notes, and if we listen carefully, especially at Christmas, we'll hear them whispering to us, Merry Christmas, dear one. I love you with all my heart. The trick, she said, is to listen and believe.”
“Not only your angels, sweetheart,” whispered Mother tremulously. “Your mother, James, Nell, God Himself – they’re all sending you love messages, not only at Christmas, but every day. You must believe that. You do believe that, in your heart of hearts.”
She was moved beyond measure. She had truly broken Hilda wide open, for this revelation came from a deeply hidden, inner sanctum. Never before had Hilda volunteered anything about her mother. It was all held within, a treasure too precious to be shown the light of day. Hilda had just offered her another gift, a priceless one……
Author's Chapter Notes:
I'm afraid it's long....