|“No! Ian! Oh, noooo…” |
A wail of such agony rang through the still night air that Mother Abbess was out of bed and holding Hilda while still half-asleep. It was the third time since coming to bed that Hilda had woken her. Each time, her fear grew more acute, the images more horrifying. The nun glanced at the clock and saw it was four o’clock. The low time of the night, the time when people’s lives ebbed quietly away. She cradled Hilda’s trembling body.
“Tell me, Hilda. Don’t hold it in!” Hilda’s head shook but Mother Abbess was having none of it. “Yes! Now! Spit it out. What happened? What did you see?”
“Ian… lying beside the car…” Hilda sobbed, her breath catching in her throat. “There was a huge piece of glass right… through his chest. He was looking at me, begging me to help, bbut I couldn’t… I just stood there.”
“Good girl, good girl. Was he bleeding? What did he say?”
“There was blood everywhere.” Hilda clung hard to the nun as she tried to force the words out through a clogged-up throat. “It was all over the car - over the grass - over Ian - even over me.It wouldn’t stop!It kept spraying into my face! I didn’t know a body could hold so much blood.”
She stopped despairingly, seeing in full colour that image , and Ian's contorted face, feeling the warm blood on her face. Mother held the shuddering body closer.
“And Ian? What about Ian?”
“He just lay there, looking up at me… His eyes pleaded with me to help him, but I couldn’t move. It was like - like I was nailed to the ground….”
She tried to creep closer into the nun’s arms, aware of nothing but the awful terror that had taken hold. Mother Abbess had other ideas. She took her by the shoulders and forced Hilda to look at her.
“Wake up, child! It’s over.” She tried to get through the darkness. “You know that’s not what happened. Ian's alive and fit and well. You saved his life, remember – at great cost to your own. This is guilt, sweetheart, nothing but guilt.”
“W..what do you mean?” asked Hilda, her jaws clenched to stop her teeth chattering. Her tear-drenched eyes locked fearfully on the nun’s.
“I think you do still feel guilt about Nell – guilt that you weren’t there for her - even though you know that’s ridiculous. Even worse than that, you still feel guilt over Ian. On that lonely trek in the dark, you collapsed. No surprise there! You were too weak to get up again. No surprise there, either.”
Hilda opened her mouth to speak, but the nun shook her again.
“No, Hilda, listen! You were so severely injured that the wonder is you could walk at all, never mind for a couple of hours on a freezing cold mountainside. Of course you gave in. Who wouldn’t? Of course you didn’t think of Ian as you lay there. You were too far gone! But you feel guilty about that, too. You’ve never stopped feeling guilty, despite what I said in the San. Hilda Annersley thought of no one but herself, and that’s killing her!”
At the harsh words, the body she held went still. Hilda’s eyes lost their fear. Doubt crept in to take its place. She forced her jaw to relax and tried to move, but the strong arms held her firmly, the green eyes forcing her to think.
“You’re right.” She spoke in a quiet murmur, her lips betraying her. “I didn’t give one thought to Ian as I lay there, and, yes, it’s killing me. I may never forgive myself, no matter what you say. I know I’m a disappointment to you, Mother, but to leave someone to die, when I could have saved him...”
She closed her eyes. She could no longer face those steady green eyes. They were asking too much of her. But Mother Abbess hated herself. How could you expect a woman with such love for others, a woman who placed such fierce demands on herself, to forgive her denial of another’s needs? She looked at the humble, tear-stained face and crumbled. Drawing the pliant body close, she nestled Hilda’s head on her shoulder.
“You could never be a disappointment to me, daughter. I’m just trying to make you see that these nightmares are your guilt coming out, guilt for which there is no need. You didn’t abandon Nell, you didn’t abandon Ian. Your own indomitable will…”
The head on her shoulders moved. A whisper floated up. “Nell...”
Mother Abbess’s voice was implacable. “Your own indomitable will got you back on your feet. Not Nell! You! Oh, Nell might have been your inspiration, but it was you who saw it through to the bitter end - and so very nearly lost your life in the process. They still have no idea what made you decide to live that night. But, knowing you as I do? Will power, pure and simple! Even death wasn’t strong enough to hold out against that will of yours. Perhaps Nell was there, too, pushing you back towards life.”
Hilda remained silent. When Mother Abbess spoke again, her voice was the loving, chiding voice of a benevolent despot.
“Sweetheart, these guilts must go, like all the other guilts we’ve managed to demolish. Then, perhaps, these awful dreams will lose their power.”
She laid Hilda back on the pillows, smoothed the brown hair back from the tense, white face, kissed her on the nose and handed her a handkerchief.
“Reflect on all that while I go and get us some tea. I think we’ve earned it.” Her smile was grim when she saw Hilda’s face relax a little. She added, pitilessly, “Then you’ll continue to place yourself under obedience to me and tell me more about that long walk. I want it all, every single detail, so we can get rid of it for you.”
She was grieved BY the huge, violet shadows under the blue-grey eyes, the pain and confusion IN those fine eyes. She had so longed to see there the joy Ian and Nancy had told her about. She only hoped she would look back on all this later and see how, or why, God thought it necessary. Had Hilda needed to be shot, as well as bereaved, then be almost killed in a car crash? All in the short space of seven months? In her savage pain for Hilda, she turned on the One she loved.
Did you need to add emotional traumas, as well, Lord? Ian’s unwanted love, an unhappy school mistress, a jealous deputy? These nightmares are the final grim touch. Instead of averting them, it seems You’re toying with her to the point of destruction, like a cat with a mouse. Please, please, give her some breathing space.
She knew not one of those things was His fault. They had been caused by human error and tempestuous emotion, plus the simple forces of nature. But her anger demanded that He could have done more for one who trusted Him as much as Hilda did!
Hilda did place herself under obedience to Mother Abbess, and poured it all out in fits and starts. Every time she dried up, the nun applied more pressure. Not once did Hilda think of refusing, and the nun could see it was having some effect. By the time the bell rang for the nuns to go to the first service in chapel, Hilda was deeply asleep, empty and drained, totally depleted, but with some of the tension gone from her gaunt face.
She slept most of the day, her second full day at the convent. She roused at lunchtime to drink the soup spooned into her by Sister Infirmarian, who then tucked her in again as though she were a child. No nightmares disturbed her, except once when she mewed softly in her sleep and was soothed back into quietness by the nursing Sister, who was pleased to see some of the lines in the sensitive face relax. She was deeply concerned, though, at the way Hilda, even in sleep, clung to her hand every time she took her pulse.
Mother Abbess found time to return after the evening meal. It had been a long, long day. Sister Infirmarian met her outside the door and was her usual blunt self.
“You look weary! I’d like to think Hilda won’t notice, but I suspect that’s a forlorn hope.”
Mother Abbess grimaced and eased knotted shoulders. “How is she?”
“Your treatment seems to be working. She’s slept well and looks marginally better. No good expecting miracles. She has a lot to make up. She’s exhausted in body and spirit. You’re going to have to be very strict with her, demand that she eat and sleep, rest and recuperate. Those headaches aren’t going to disappear overnight, or the nightmares.”
“So, all in all, the trend is upwards!” remarked Mother Abbess, irony rife in her voice. “Thank you for watching her, Pauline. Don’t worry! There’ll be no let-up. I know that iron will by now!”
She slipped into the small room. Hilda was reading peacefully, reclining against a bank of pillows, her face matching them for whiteness, her hair neatly braided. Nell’s book, noted Mother Abbess. She sat on the bed.
“Let me look at you, daughter.”
She searched Hilda’s face, realising without surprise that Hilda was doing the same to her. She saw the sudden worry and cupped the white face in warm hands.
“Oh no, you don’t. I want no more guilt.”
“You look exhausted. I kept you awake most of the night, and you’ve obviously had a hard day,” Hilda countered.
The nun saluted Sister Infirmarian’s prescience. Nothing, indeed, got past Hilda!
“I’m fine, child. I’m your counsellor. It’s what I expect to do, as you will do in your turn in years to come. As you do yourself at school for girls and staff. There’s no difference.”
Hilda acknowledged the hit and subsided. Well, that was a first, smiled the nun inwardly, and continued to scrutinise the face cupped in her hands.
“You look much better already. Those dark shadows are fading and the lines are going. But it’s your eyes that tell me most. They've looked so haunted since you arrived, but I finally see a little light there.”
Hilda clutched one of the hands round her face.
“You've done me so much good. I came here desperately needing help, as I did once before. I couldn’t get here fast enough. But I made it so hard for you, didn’t I?”
Her look was one of pleading, asking for forgiveness. Mother Abbess’s face wore a wry grin.
“I suspect you'll always make it hard for me, child. You’re so determined not to show your emotions, to be independent and sort out your own problems. Plus, you’ve come so late to the religious life…”
“I learned an important lesson yesterday and last night, though.”
Hilda’s eyes were serious in her attempt to make this woman understand that she might have come late to the religious life, but she was no slouch.
“I found that in simple obedience lies freedom. Freedom to be myself; freedom to lay bare my inner workings, the good and the ugly; freedom to be fully known, fully revealed, and yet not be judged. I found – what? In simple obedience, I found healing, and will go on finding it, because you know me now, know what to do for me, know how to give me room to breathe.”
Mother Abbess was silenced. In simple obedience lies freedom. It took some nuns years to learn that. Some never learned it, never made it part of their interior life. They were afraid that obedience meant conformity, meant going against their own nature. In that moment, she knew with utter certainty that what she had planned for Hilda was right. This wise, tender woman would always go straight to the heart of the matter, would see what needed to be seen, do what needed to be done. Even as the nun was recovering from shock, Hilda surprised her again.
“Every time I’ve opened up to you this year, you've brought me closer to being healed of my grief, my loneliness. I have to be obedient, because you love me, want me to be whole, want to get rid of all that spoils the person God created me to be. I must be defenceless before you, make myself vulnerable, because you represent God - and God loves me even more then you. He knows me through and through, anyway, so why hide? What security there is in that!” Her smile was beguiling. “You will not find me so unbiddable ever again.”
“Hilda, you never cease to amaze me.” Mother Abbess gazed in awe at her new daughter. “Just when I begin to think I know you, you reveal new depths, and take me there with you. Where do you find such wisdom?”
But she already knew the answer. Hilda was so good at the sub-texts. She listened with heart and mind wide open. She walked with God, even in her brokenness.
“From you,” Hilda replied. “Nell taught me so wisely, and you've just carried on the process. You rescued me time and time again this year, and I wouldn’t listen. But you’ve got through. I’m listening now.”
“I didn't do it, love. Not in the San, and not this time. It was the community. I was only the medium. They've been praying for you constantly from the moment we heard about the crash. Every moment of the day or night, there's been someone in front of the altar for you.” Hilda’s eyes were out on stalks. “We pray for all our guests, but you're one of us now. I saw how ill you looked when you arrived, and again yesterday, so I asked for more prayers. It was the Sisters’ combined strength that did it. You stood no chance at all.” She grinned at Hilda’s stupefaction.
“But we’re not finished yet, by any means. You’re still far from well, so you will put yourself under obedience to Sister Infirmarian where your physical health's concerned. Your nightmares haven’t gone away yet – it’s not that easy - so we go on talking.”
She grinned to herself when she saw Hilda was well and truly silenced by this laying down of the law.
“Have you had any flashbacks since you woke up this afternoon?” Hilda nodded. It never even occurred to her to hide anything, as she had been doing. “And your head still aches, so you sleep here again tonight.”
”But, you look so tired. You got no sleep last night, thanks to me, and you’ve worked all day. Let me sleep in my own room tonight, and….”
“I thought you were going to be biddable,” remarked Mother Abbess, a steely glint in her eye. Hilda bit her lip. “You'll sleep here tonight, as will I, so we can go on fighting these nightmarish demons. That’s what mothers do – lighten the darkness. I'm not having you come to my convent and be too scared to go to bed at night.”
She stared at Hilda fiercely, expecting her to laugh. Instead, hot tears splashed down her cheeks. So many tears she seemed to have inside her at the moment.
“Hilda?” Mother Abbess was alarmed, and pulled Hilda up and into her arms. Had she been too harsh?
“Such love,” Hilda wept. “I didn’t think I would ever find such love again in this life.”
“Oh, daughter, we all love you, and will try so very hard never to let you down or leave you lonely,” the nun whispered, letting the tears flow, for they were healing tears. “Hilda, sweetheart, when you’re ready, I want to tell you a story.”
“About Ellie? That sad, young girl?” asked Hilda, withdrawing from the loving arms.
Without answer, Mother Abbess went next door to the little bathroom, returning with flannel and towel. She washed Hilda’s face, plumped up her pillows, fetched her a glass of water, then dropped into the chair by the bed, eyeing Hilda with concern.
“Are you sure your head's up to this?”
Hilda was very white, the shadows still dark round the weary eyes, but she held out her hand, which the nun clasped.
“I’ve slept all day. I think I’m in the running for the title of Rip Van Winkle of the Year.” Her smile faded. “Tell me Ellie’s story. She looks so bleak, it’s unbearable.”
Just like you, my dear, but hopefully this will sidetrack you from some of that guilt and pain.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Only a very short chapter tonight - to thank you for all the brilliant reviews.