High atop a grassy knoll, overlooking the sluggish Err, a group of black-robed mourners stood, casting dark shadows on the long grass waving beneath the summer sky. The mourners, all women, were from the Abbey of Errinshire, at the base of the knoll; but not all of them were nuns. Of the three who were not of the sisterhood, bright Gay stood out the most. She walked with the others, her threadbare green cloak clutched about her more for protection than any warmth. Her blonde hair, unbound, blew about her face and shoulders in the persistent breeze. Protection against she knew not what, but she gathered herself inside the cloth as if it were a chainmail shirt. Her cheeks were tear-stained, her dark blue eyes had the swollen dull look of someone who has cried and cried and still not shed all the grief inside her.
Beside her, in a borrowed robe the nuns of Errinshire had kindly lent her, walked her foster-sister Avery. A few wisps escaped the chestnut braid that hung to her waist [PS1] outside her habit. Tendrils curled around her pale face, freckled and browned from the sun. Her hands were trembling, and she tried to hide them inside her sleeves. In vain, for Gay noticed. Avery felt her gaze and for a brief moment their eyes met in grief and recognition.
The third woman who was also not of the Errin sisterhood, yet bound by her very presence the two girls into a society all their own, took no notice and gave none that her daughter and foster-daughter so communicated. Borne on a litter by eight nuns[PS2] , resting on their shoulders, shrouded Eland was carried to her grave.
The only sound on the knoll was the wind rattling through the grasses and the clothes and the footsteps of the mourners. White scattered tombstones lay here and there, fallen over into the grass from age and weather. The knoll was the ancestral home to the Errin dead.
It was peaceful. Gay was surprised when the sweet calming wind, warm sun, and scent of the grasses [PS3] penetrated her sorrow. Surrounded as she was by the silent nuns, she felt that if she just closed her eyes she could be alone and happy on the hill.
The bearers stopped at the freshly dug grave, slashed out of the earth like a wound and lowered Eland to the ground. The brown earth mounded against the grass seemed to bleed, the dirt was so wet and fresh. Gay blinked again and saw that what she mistook for blood was merely the sun shining on the last of the morning’s dew.
Eland’s muffled body waited patiently, as she herself in life had waited, peacefully and happy, for what her fate would bring. Gay choked back a sudden hot spurt of tears as an image of her foster-mother rose in her mind. Avery groped for her hand and held it tight, and together they watched their mother consigned to the earth. Clump, went the shovelfuls of earth onto the shroud.
“To the Goddess,” intoned the nuns solemnly. “To the Goddess, back to the earth, go and give fruitfulness to the earth, the rain, the seed. Let life return in death.”
Clump, more muffled now, as dirt fell onto dirt. Soon the only sound was the sound of shovelful after shovelful falling rich and thick into Eland’s grave.
“Goddess, accept this woman’s life back into the bounty of the earth,” chanted the Abbess. She turned away. The bearers picked up the litter and followed. The few other nuns who had watched the ceremony picked their way back along the path back to the valley. Below, Gay could see the white stone buildings of the Abbey as well as the town of Errin with its houses and fields laid out in a patchwork.
Avery still held her hand, and Gay saw that she was crying, silently, yet so Gay wondered how she could see. Alone on the knoll, with the wind and the grass and the sun, they hugged and hugged, trying to find a way to return a portion of their soul that had been buried at their feet.
[PS1]Ah, the author inserts herself. Avery is the Mary Sue of the novel. I love Avery — as I remember, she’s a bit of a mess.
[PS2]So why eight? Well, the upper body strength of the average woman tends to be less than that of a man. But also, eight is the number of rowers in a shell, and I had spent plenty of time with a fiberglass shell on my shoulders for crew. I doubt I thought of that at the time though.
[PS3]My whole life, I have had dreams of this landscape scene. A grassy hill, summer sun, and a balming wind. It appears in one of the first chapters in Gordath Wood. I have no idea why.
[PS4]I don’t know if I was thinking of this in a romantic way or not — I guess they were just hugging but I also, knowing myself, probably was thinking a romantic entanglement. They are foster sisters, so maybe that’s okay. I don’t know.