By Jane Spirit
‘Now Hannah, will you take these little mittens up to the pastor for me?’ her mother asked quietly. ‘He’ll be at the church all of this morning in prayer,’ she added.
From a very early age Hannah had been used to running such errands. She knew that the delivery of the mittens was not urgent, but she also knew that, if she hesitated, her mother would simply continue to ask her, or might find some even less enjoyable chore that needed doing. She would be better off to take the little mittens that her mother had lovingly crocheted for the pastor’s wife’s new baby. Once her mother had dispatched her, Hannah thought it unlikely that anyone would notice if she was away from home for some little while.
Catching up the mittens and her bonnet, Hannah called to her mother as she stepped quickly through the half-open door and picked her way past the chickens in the yard. She refastened the rough gate onto the grassy path and began to walk steadily towards the church that she could see ahead of her. Once away from the cottage, she slipped one hand into the pocket of her apron and felt the rounded edges of the stone. She took comfort from feeling its smoothness and from knowing that it was securely there.
Hannah thought of how her parents counted it a blessing that their tucked away little cottage was so close to the Baptist church that had been built on fields behind the long line of houses that made up their village. It meant that they did not need to make a long walk on the Sabbath day to attend the services there within its plain brick walls with their straightedged clear glass windows, simply but solidly constructed despite the sandy soil of its foundations.
Hannah also understood how their proximity to the church and the little graveyard attached to one side of it was a daily comfort to her parents. She took comfort in it too, although she found herself daily trying to work out for herself what part Martha had been destined to play in God’s plan when she had been swallowed into darkness along with her cheeky grin and her ceaseless skipping and hopping and jumping.
Hannah let her eyes rest only for a moment on the green hedge-guarded space of the churchyard and then raised them up to follow the slight incline up the small hill behind the church, past Mrs Keeble’s cottage with its pieced together slated roof, towards the wood at the top. She and Martha had played there together as often as they could manage it between chores and church attendances. She paused on the path, to study the large old trees of the wood. Their upright branches stirred in the breeze. Perhaps they were as restless as she was to resume their part in a familiar game of chase with Martha who would giggle as she flitted from one to the other.
It was there that they had met Mrs Keeble by chance, sitting on a log in the woods and muttering to herself. Rumour had it that she still pertained to country ways that seemed to contradict the teachings of the church. They had been told to avoid her but were soon disarmed by her kind enquiries about how their little brothers and sister were growing. They had become accustomed to sitting at her side whilst she told them stories about the old days, long before the church stood close by, when the world seemed to have been full of magical creatures. Those meetings had been their secret and she sometimes wondered whether Martha’s fever and her passing away to be with the Lord was, in some way she could not quite fathom, connected to their fascination with that imaginary world.
She and Martha had found the stone on one of those days when they had been loitering by the log. Mrs Keeble had explained to them how its blackness and whorls of white and its smooth shape showed that it had been pummelled by water, perhaps by the river that might once have flooded the whole of the valley, but was now contained in a much narrower, meandering stream bed. They treasured the stone from then on. It seemed to carry with it their old neighbour’s wisdom and knowledge of a more exciting ancient time. They found that its rounded shape and curled-hand size made it a good plaything, just right for adorning with flowers and leaves, or pretending that it was a tiny creature that needed warming in their hands and dressing, like the minutest of new-borns, in any scraps of cloth that they had been allowed to keep from their mother’s sewing. Being older, Hannah had fretted when an exuberant Martha had once used the stone for hopscotch, but then Martha had quickly scooped it up, dusting it down and hurrying home to place it in its safe place close to the yard gate where it was invisible to the others.
Thinking of Martha playing as she constantly did, Hannah hurried quickly into the church, but was careful to remain hushed once she noticed the pastor seated in the front pew with his head clearly bent in prayer. She must have made just enough of a stir to cause him to raise his head and to see her. He smiled at her as she proffered the mittens and explained that her mother had asked her to bring them for his littlest one. He muttered his thanks and then looked downwards as if anxious to be alone again. Hannah turned and with swift steps left the church, glad to be warmed outside by the sun.
Would Martha be feeling cold, she wondered? Somehow, she could not picture her sister suspended in a sun-filled sky when her grave seemed to be more akin to the rabbit warren on the sloping bank up to the woods, full of dark chambers, safe and snug, but also dark and endless in its meandering passageways. She shivered now at the thought of it and felt again for the soft stone, hidden as it was in the dark recesses of her apron. She took it out to warm it in her hands and then knew with certainty what it was that she could do for Martha. With sudden conviction she swung towards the graves. No, she would not place it too obviously on the small undulation on the ground where Martha, for all her liveliness, had been laid supposedly to rest. Veering off now towards the hedge furthest from Martha’s plot, she took the stone and knelt to place it at the graveyard boundary, making sure that it was hidden by a tuft of grass. She did not pray but bounded back to her feet and towards the gate of the churchyard. She headed for home now, aware only of the emptiness of her pocket. She no longer had the stone to keep hold of her sister by. Yet she was strangely comforted by its absence. Now if Martha were ever to feel restless or lonely, her soul had only to jump up, shrug off any trappings of immortal inhibitions, and retrieve the stone to play hopscotch, unseen and undisturbed, whenever and for as long as she wished.
Hannah would miss the weight of the stone in her hand, but her steps were lighter as she skipped back to the cottage to tell her mother that she had run her errand.