A short story by Mary M. Isaacs.
The old wooden door opened noiselessly; a young woman hesitated on the threshold, looking in from the darkness outside. The brick walls of the room were in shadow, lit only by two oil lamps on either end of a plain wooden table and the glow of a hanging lamp: a candle in a red glass holder.
“Sanctuary,” she breathed, closing her eyes in thankfulness.
She entered the room and quietly shut the door behind her. In her arms she carried something wrapped in blankets; over her shoulder was slung a large knapsack, which looked more bulky than heavy. Her clothing was wrinkled and stained, as if she had been wearing it for many days–which she had been.
There were a few benches along the walls. She crossed to one and sat down gratefully. While still carefully holding what was in her arms, she unslung the knapsack and set it on the floor beside her. She then leaned against the wall and sighed deeply. This was her penultimate destination; the difficult journey was almost over. Although she no longer had a watch—she had no metal objects of any kind on her, for that matter—she had a good sense of time. She knew she wouldn’t have to wait very long for the final service of the day. She rested quietly, eyes on the hanging lamp.
After a short while, a bell started to ring.
In a nearby room, an old man put down a large handbell and carefully retied the cincture around his long robe. In the small kitchen down the hall, a middle-aged woman finished putting away a few dishes and hung a towel up to dry. Both of them headed for the brick-walled room at the same time.
The young woman heard the sound of approaching footsteps. She stood up and, dragging the knapsack with her free hand, moved closer to the wooden table. She stood there silently as the footsteps came closer.
The old man, followed by the woman, entered the dimly-lit room, but they stopped abruptly at the sight of an unexpected visitor. The three of them looked at each other for a moment, and then the old man stepped forward with a smile.
“Greetings and welcome,” he said, inclining his head slightly. The young woman shifted the wrapped object in her arms as he spoke; the older woman’s eyes instinctively took in how it was being carried.
“Can we help you?” the old man said. “I am Brother Simon, and this is Sister Julianne.” He indicated the woman standing next to him. “We are…caretakers here.”
“I’ve come a long way to find this place,” the young woman replied. “There is something important I must do.” She turned down a fold of the blanket in her arms to reveal the sleeping face of a very young child. The older woman drew in her breath audibly.
Brother Simon looked sober. “It’s a boy?” he asked. When the young woman nodded, he lifted his eyebrows and then said, “How old is he?”
“Seven months old,” she replied, holding the child a little closer. “And the Ceremony happens soon.”
“Next week!” Sister Julianne said, moving forward while putting one hand over her heart.
The young woman looked at her, assessing—and then smiled. “I have come to the right place. God led me here.”
“How long have you been travelling?” asked Brother Simon.
“A week or so—I’ve lost track of the days,” the young woman replied. “I travelled by night, when the child was asleep, and then hid and rested by day. I sold or traded away all my jewelry and there is no metal on our clothing, so they couldn’t track us the usual way. But they’re looking. I did get a head start, though, and we have come a long way.”
“You and the child are welcome to stay here,” said Brother Simon warmly.
“No, they will search everywhere for me. Even here.”
Still holding the child carefully, she pulled back her right sleeve and turned over her arm. They were silent as they saw the brand.
“They will never stop looking for me until they find me—one way or another,” she said, as she shook down her sleeve.
“What will happen to the child?” asked Sister Julianne in a whisper.
“Nothing will happen to him–because they won’t find him. He will be here, safe with you. What’s one child more or less to them, anyway? There’s plenty more where he came from.” The young mother’s expression became bleak.
“You brought him here to save him?” asked the older woman.
“Yes, to save him.”
“Of course he can stay here,” Brother Simon said. “And you can stay, too.”
The young woman shook her head. “I can only save one of us. And there is no saving for me,” she said, her face set. “They will kill me on sight because I escaped. And if they find him, they will take him back and—dispose of him. I won’t let that happen.”
“But surely they know you escaped with the child,” the older woman said. “Won’t they keep trying to find him?”
“Open the knapsack and take out what’s on top.” Sister Julianne did as she was directed and pulled out a folded cloth. “Look at it,” said the young woman. When the cloth was shaken out, it was revealed to be a baby’s nightgown, torn and stained with blood. The young woman reached for it.
“I will carry this with me. They will find it and think that the child was killed by animals. And because they must kill me, they will never know that he survived. The dead cannot speak. And he will be saved.”
“Where did the blood come from?” Brother Simon asked the young woman.
“It’s mine,” she said simply, as she tucked the small garment into her sleeve.
There was a moment of silence, and then the old man spoke again. “Is there anything we can do for you—anything at all?”
She turned to him quickly. “Yes—please baptize him before I go. I want to see him baptized.”
“I am not a priest,” began Brother Simon, but she interrupted him.
“I know that—the few that are left are hidden better than you or I could ever find in time. But this is a church…”
The old man shook his head. “It was a church.”
She looked him straight in the eye. “It will always be a church. You are the caretaker of this holy place and you are a believer. In the absence of a priest, you can baptize.” When he still looked uncertain, she added “If the child and I were to be retaken, we both would die; me quickly and him terribly. Such urgency allows you to baptize.”
“How did you learn these things?” asked Brother Simon.
“I was taught well, God rest her soul,” the young woman closed her eyes and crossed herself. “I want him to be baptized, as I was.”
“Who baptized you?” Brother Simon said, amazed.
“A priest. God rest his soul, too,” the words came out in a sob. Sister Julianne came closer and put her arm around the young woman’s shoulders.
The old man stood in silence for a moment. Then he turned to Sister Julianne. “We’ll need the candles,” he said. She nodded and left the room. While she was gone, Brother Simon went to the side wall of the room, kneeled down, and carefully slid a few bricks out of the wall. He reached into the space behind them and withdrew a silver dish and a small corked bottle. He carried them all back to the table. When the young woman looked closely, she saw that the bottle was filled with a clear liquid and the dish was shaped like a scallop shell.
Brother Simon began speaking as he placed the dish on the table and uncorked the bottle. “The last priest who was here had a vision—a warning of a difficult time to come. He was right.” The old man smiled grimly as he poured a little of the water into the silver shell. “He dug out the space in the wall behind the bricks, in which to hide the holy water and the baptismal shell. And there are other things in there. He prepared quite a lot before…” his voice trailed off.
“Before what?” asked the young woman sharply.
Brother Simon looked up. “Before he was taken,” he said simply.
“You never saw him again?”
“No,” the old man shook his head sadly. “The night before they came, he hid everything in the wall and made me vow to guard it with my life. That it all would be needed some day…” The old man finished his preparations and turned to the young woman. “May I?” he said, holding out his arms. Without a word, the young woman carefully handed the sleeping baby to him. Brother Simon settled the child in his arms and gazed in silence at him. His eyes took in every detail.
During this time, Sister Julianne had returned with several votive candles; she lit them and placed them in order on the table. She then came around to the front and stood beside the young woman. The two of them looked at each other, then the young woman took the other’s hand in both of hers.
“Will you be his godmother, please? The only mother he will have after tonight.” The older woman nodded her assent, and then they both turned to face the old man and the child, still holding hands.
Brother Simon looked up from his study of the child’s face. “We will begin. What is his name?”
“Christopher Joel,” the young woman replied.
The old man looked surprised. “They wouldn’t have liked that…”
“They don’t know anything,” she said scornfully. “They’ve all forgotten, or they refuse to remember.”
Brother Simon held the sleeping child in one arm and made the sign of the cross over him. Then he picked up the small silver dish. Being careful not to let any liquid fall into the baby’s face, he poured some water on the top of the small head three times. “Christopher Joel, I baptize thee in the name of the Father…and of the Son…and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” The two women echoed the final word. The child did not wake but continued sleeping peacefully.
When he was finished, he gently handed the child to Sister Julianne, who gathered him into her arms with a smile of joy. He then turned back to the young woman. “I would like to anoint you. What is your name?”
“I can’t tell you that. It’s not safe for you to know who I am.”
Brother Simon looked at her and then said, “I understand, and you are right. But God certainly knows who you are, because you are his, and that is all that matters.” He took up the bottle of holy water and marked her forehead with the sign of the cross. “Into His hands I commend your spirit.”
The young woman reached up to her forehead and traced the cross-shape. Then she looked at Brother Simon and asked, “Is there enough holy water for one more thing?” He nodded; she pulled up her right sleeve once again. “Please put it on this, to take away the shame.”
Brother Simon covered the brand with holy water and murmured a cleansing prayer. All at once, a look of release flooded her face. “Thank you,” she said simply as she lowered her sleeve.
Turning to the other woman, she indicated the knapsack beside them on the floor. “There are blankets and extra clothing for him in there, and a bottle. I weaned him early, to make things easier for whoever would be taking care of him.” She looked at the older woman, who was cradling the baby protectively. “He’s a good baby—and you will be a good mother to him, I know. He will be safe here with you both.” She looked trustingly from the woman to the old man, and back again. Then she looked down at the child for a long moment. Curving her hands around his face, although not touching him, she whispered some words inaudibly, as if in blessing. When she finished, she bent over and kissed the sleeping child lightly on both cheeks and on his forehead. Then she straightened up and, with tears beginning to fall, kissed the older woman’s cheek. “Christopher is your son now. Guard him well.”
“I will–with my life,” answered Sister Julianne.
The young woman turned her face up to the hanging lamp with a sharp look of longing–then tore her eyes away. “I need to leave. I don’t know how close they are, and I must lead them as far away from here as I can.” She turned quickly and raised the older man’s hand to her forehead. “Ring the bell for me after your prayers. Twenty-three times.” She looked to make sure that the old man understood, and then left the chapel silently, without a backward glance.
The baby stirred; Sister Julianne began to rock him gently in her arms. Brother Simon replaced the holy water and the baptismal shell in the hiding place in the wall, sliding the bricks back into their spots exactly. He picked up the knapsack and tucked it under his arm. Then he blew out the candles on the table and took up the two oil lamps. “Come,” he said to Sister Julianne, “You need to prepare a place for this child—for our Christopher Joel—to sleep. I will come back and say Compline for all of us. God brought this child here; he will understand your absence.”
“Remember to pray for her soul,” said the woman, holding the infant closer.
“Yes, we must pray for her; and keep her child safe always.”
The three of them quietly left the chapel, leaving the sanctuary lamp burning behind them.
Mary M. Isaacs copyright, 2020
(from a forthcoming book)
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