JEHANNA IN THE DARK
Along with the disappearance of the sun, whatever heat the day held disappeared as well; Jehanna was thankful for her woolen covering as she walked.
She had first been frightened of walking in the dark, but the clouds opened just enough to allow the light of the moon to shine down. It was slow going and it was necessary to pick her way carefully along the path. She thought of many things as she walked. She thought of her husband, Lodhen, away with the other men, lost to an unknowable fate on the capricious Eastern Sea. She thought of her sleeping child who, under the watchful eyes of the neighboring widow, dreamed perhaps of his father, while she wandered alone in the darkness.
But mostly, she thought of the priest.
Would he need the food she brought? The warm blanket? Would he be surprised when she knocked at the doors of the church, not in anger this time, but with a different entreaty on her lips? The bells had brought her to the church, but the priest embodied its mystery. If anyone could bring the men home from the sea, she believed the priest and his Unseen God could.
She crested the hill and saw the ancient form of the church loom dark against the lighter cliff line beyond. The wind blew harder and harsher here, high above the village of Reine. A few strands of her hair escaped the confines of her hood, whipping against her numbed cheeks. When she reached the great wooden doors of the church, she shifted the bundle in her arms and knocked loudly against the whistling of the wind.
“Father!” she cried, banging on the doors. “Father, can you hear me?”
She waited, but no answer came from the church.
“Please, Father,” she cried again, “we need help in the village! The men have not returned, and the Elders will do nothing! Won’t you open the door?”
Jehanna banged harder but to no avail. No matter how loudly she knocked or cried aloud, the priest did not come. Her hands began to tremble in growing fear. Dropping her bundle on the ground by the doors, Jehanna tried with all her might to open them, pushing and pulling, but found they would not yield to her. Worrying her lips in the darkness, Jehanna, at last, remembered something. The priest had needed to draw water from a well when last she came to the church. If there was a well, or cistern for water, behind the church, then there would be another door as well.
She followed the line of the church, bracing her hand against the rough, weathered stone to keep her bearings in the dark. The stone felt damp under her fingers, pocked with tiny divots and furrows, their substance endlessly gnawed by the sea breezes and the teeth of the passing years. The priest had said the church was built by a long-forgotten remnant of his order, their numbers dwindling, their reliquaries fading into disuse and disrepair over the passage of many centuries, until now only a few dotted the landscape. He had come from their last great House in the western foothills, their last emissary to the shores of Drusinia.
There was no wind by the lee side of the church, Jehanna realized, the nip and bite of the cold easing. The respite was welcome and Jehanna rested her forehead on the stone surface of the church’s wall for a brief moment.
What would she do, she wondered, if the priest was not in the church? Perhaps he was not answering because he was absent, on some journey of his own. Was her quest foolhardy? She remembered well the hot shame from her last visit to the church, how her hotheaded quest for justice weakened when she saw the poverty in which the priest lived.
But the Elders are wrong, Jehanna argued against the uncertainty which seemed to rise in the absence of the wind. The women, with their hungry children, are despairing and hopeless in their dark huts, and their men are far away. Perhaps speaking to the priest is foolish and perhaps he can do nothing, but should we not try at the very least?
She had reached the corner of the church and the dim light from the veiled moon revealed precious little of the landscape. There was a line of stone encircling an inner yard of scraggly grass and greenery, two larger shapes rounded like barrels, and along the horizon, a sharp line separating the lighter sky from the solid darkness of the earth. Jehanna paused.
She’d never before realized how closely the church hugged the cliffs above Reine though the unceasing murmur of the sea below seemed faint to her as she stood, pensive and halting, in the shadows.
A quiet scuffle in the night caught her attention. Jehanna straightened, glancing behind her. “Father?” she called out, a bright stab of hope hastening the beat of her heart. “Father, is that you?”
The scuffling stopped, but the silence was heavy. The moon eased from behind the clouds once more, spilling shafts of diffused light. The shadows deepened where she stood, but nothing moved and Jehanna heard no more. Unnerved, she shook herself and turned back towards the courtyard.
There was a break in the line of stone that separated the inner yard from the grounds around it. Lifting her skirts as high as she dared, Jehanna crossed over and after several moments of searching found the door the priest must have used to draw water from the well. Feeling as though the eyes of all the world were on her, she took hold of the rope handle and pushed on the door with her shoulder. There was a protesting groan as the rough wood ground on the stone threshold, but the door eased inward.
Jehanna swallowed and entered the greater darkness.
To be continued…
Copyright © J.S. White