Monday, 12 May 2014

Will they see the sky again?

“Pull the covers over their heads, sister.”
“Will they see the sky again?”
Here at the Hospice the flowers are always kept in full bloom.  They are the same flowers, unchanging though the days drift by like blossom falling from the cherry trees in the garden.  Tall women dressed in black dresses, white wimples, and enormous brass crosses that should bend them double traverse the halls and corridors, each standing tall and moving in an elegant and stately fashion.  The crosses have equal arms, the one as wide as their shoulders and the other as long.  They are suspended on brass chains where each link is as long as my hand, and made of metal as thick as my thumb.  They must weigh tens of pounds, and yet the tall women glide around like ghosts and just as silent and cold.
I try to cross the corridors but I am scared.  The women bear down on me like ice-skaters on a freshly polished rink, moving fast and seemingly deadly. I retreat back to the doorway of my room, standing on the threshold but not daring to step back inside.  There’s a smell in the air like a swimming pool, and a distant beeping comes from the inside, but the door is only just ajar and I don’t want to peek through the crack.  I’m worried that someone might be peeking back.
“The rain has stopped.”
“At last.  It must have rained for days.”
“It gave our sisters something to talk about.”
“As though they needed anything more.”
“Will they see the sky again?”
The tall women do not deviate from their paths even when they must have seen me.  If I time it right, if I stop moving at just the right place they glide past me without touching me, and there is just a caress of cold air as though they carry their own atmosphere with them.  Sometimes I am not quite accurate in where I stop, and I find myself tantalisingly close to them.  I could stretch out a finger and touch their robes; if I breathed too hard would they smell the garlic on my breath and wonder if I thought them vampires?  I have no idea who brings me garlic, but the only food I see in the Hospice appears on a blue dresden plate on a wooden tray on the floor outside my room, and it is always three slices of warm garlic bread, chicken schnitzel with garlic breadcrumbs, and garlic custard.  There is no cutlery, and so I eat with my fingers, using the schnitzel to scoop up the pudding from its blobby, misshapen pile.  Once I licked the plate, but it tasted like steel and made my teeth tingle, so I don’t do that anymore.  It’s been hours since I was last at the door to my room though.  I have traversed six corridors, and I don’t want to turn back and have to do it all again.  And I don’t dare touch the tall women.
“We are all digging, sister.  Some more than others, I’d warrant.”
“Just dig.  There will be time for recriminations later.”
“Of course, sister.  And there will be recriminations, you may be sure of that.”
“I am aware.  But perhaps the end must justify the means.  Or perhaps the end is inevitable and the means must be chosen to have least impact.”
“You never tell me though, will they see the sky again?”
How many tall women are there?  They look familiar, but different, every one, but how can there be this many?  It has been hours and hours now, and I’ve lost track of time.  I tried counting seconds under my breath, but I don’t know that many numbers.  I am tired, and when I reach the next junction I will sit down.  I will rest for just a moment, with the smell of the swimming pool strong in my nostrils and the tall, becrossed women gliding around me like some abstract ballet where the lake was polluted and the swans all befuddled.
“Gently.  We still have a duty of care to them.”
“We are carrying them to their graves, sister.  What care you do think we can have left?”
“You asked me a question, sister.”
“Repeatedly.  You never answered.”
“You never asked the right question.”
“Will they see the sky again?”
“Have you ever seen the sky?”
“…no.  When I look up it starts to rain and saltwater gets in my eyes.”
“When they next open their eyes they will see the sky, sister.”
At the next junction, where the floor is so highly polished that it is dazzling to look at and I struggle to skid to a halt before touching a tall women, there is a door in the wall.  Almost recklessly I dart for it, and collide with it with a thump.  Before I can do anything else, it swings open.
Anna kneels on the floor in front of an altar.  Her head is bent, her blonde hair falls down to conceal her face completely, and her hands are clutched together as though she is praying.  In front of her, enclosed in a soft blue light, are the same flowers that are everywhere in the Hospice, and suddenly I know why the flowers are always in full bloom.
I say her name.
“Shovel faster.”
“He spoke, sister.  He said a name.”
“Shovel!  Before he can open his eyes!”
“But you said–“


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