The meaning of life

Today’s story is an excerpt from the draft of my novel “Mrs Nightingale’s Song”, slightly edited to ensure that it makes a standalone short story. It’s about 2,000 words, and takes about 15 minutes to read. I would be very grateful for any comments! (PS please don’t think the novel is about religion, because it isn’t!)

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The Meaning of Life

The church was gothic, not unpleasing in silhouette, the tower thrusting heavenwards above the town. Immediately inside the gate a notice board proclaimed that this was the Parish Church of St Luke, Rector Reverend James Malton (Cantab.).

As she entered the churchyard, Liz Nightingale noted approvingly that the board gleamed with freshly renewed paint, that the grass was neat and properly edged, and that the path to the south door was free of moss and weeds. Her spirits rose further as she heard cheerful, if amateurish, music from inside the building. She didn’t recognize the melody – it was one of those new pop hymns with guitars – but the enthusiasm of the singers struck a chord in her.

The misgivings she had felt about coming to church receded. She wasn’t going to have to defend her stance as a non-believer (well, that had been her position since she was a teenager, hadn’t it?). She was here to discover whether the teachings of the church could shed any light on the mystery of her life and death (‘because I am going to die soon,’ she reminded herself, and that in turn reminded her that the mystery was not so much her imminent end as the astonishing fact that she was alive and suddenly, desperately, wanted to understand why). She pulled off her gloves decisively, put them into her shoulder bag, and walked through the porch into the back of the church.

The woman who greeted her was charmingly plump, and in her forties. Liz noted that she wore a warm smile, a neat knitted top with a plain skirt, and flip-flops on her feet, and was immediately disposed to like her.

“Good morning. Welcome to St Luke’s. I’m Sue. This is your first time here, I think?”

Liz smiled back. “It’s certainly a long time since I last came. The Reverend Overbeck was the Vicar. It must be, oh, fifteen years ago, I suppose.”

“We’ve changed quite a lot since then. I hope you like it?”

Mrs Nightingale looked approvingly down the nave. “It’s the chairs,” she said. “They’re so much better than those old, dark pews. It looks much lighter – and more friendly.”

Sue looked pleased. “I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine, so you’ve got someone to sit next to,” she said. And so Liz spent the service sitting next to Diane, Sue’s friend. Liz had taught Diane’s children it turned out, and she listened with interest to their progress. She was particularly pleased to hear that Matthew, whom she remembered as diligent but uninspired, was now leading a project team at CERN. Her congratulations and good wishes were heartfelt.

The Rector was a big man (a rugby player surmised Liz, correctly as it happened), and there was something quiet about him – not the furtive, faint shuffle of stealth, but a peaceful sense of being (like a great tree, she imagined). His speaking voice was beautiful. The church had a sound system, but he didn’t need it; his resonant baritone was clear in the furthest corners of the building. When he mounted the steps of the pulpit, Mrs Nightingale settled herself comfortably. ‘Even if the sermon is tosh, the sound of that voice will be a treat,’ she thought, and then admonished herself. How could she expect to make sense of the sermon, much less her life’s purpose, if she was just going to wallow in sensation?

And, in fact, the sermon was an excellent exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, each facet in turn being gently burnished and then illuminated for the congregation. The Pharisee was presented as a man whose sense of vocation to a high calling blinded him to the urgent needs of the world. The Levite was a man who couldn’t see the moral imperative to help an injured man because of the blinkers of human convention. “How understandable,” said the Rector, of both men. “How human. How forgivable. And yet, here they are, held up to us as a warning – almost an eternal ‘naming and shaming’. Our sins of omission have consequences not just for those around us, but for us too.”

He moved on to consider the innkeeper, the ‘forgotten character’ as he described him. “When he left, the Samaritan paid some money to the innkeeper, not just for the care already given to the injured man, but for care into the future. And with it, he gave a promise that if the bill came to more than he had left, he would settle it on his return. It’s clear that we are meant to understand that the innkeeper was prepared to accept this – an open-ended commitment to take care of the victim. And that says two things. Firstly, the innkeeper was trusting, he had faith, and because of that he was prepared to take on a task that he probably wouldn’t otherwise have tackled. And secondly, the Samaritan was trustworthy; his words, actions and demeanour had convinced the innkeeper that any debt would be honoured.

Well, as we all know, Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan; and I propose to you that we can all play the part of the innkeeper. By trusting in Jesus we are empowered to do good, that is to say, we can do something to heal the hurts of those around us. We don’t need to feel a vocation; that can even get in the way, as it did for the Pharisee. We don’t need book-learning and consecration like the Levite; again, that may sometimes be an obstacle. All we need is trust, and the willingness to care for those who come to us in our normal, everyday, humdrum lives.”

Mrs Nightingale looked narrowly at the Reverend James Malton MA (Cantab.). Did he find simplicity elusive, she wondered? Did he fear that his knowledge of theology made him less able to help others? Maybe not. It had been a simple message, simply delivered. But what did it say about her own efforts? Were they any less valid for her lack of faith, indeed, her active opposition to everything superstitious? Why was she now looking to religion for answers? Was she subconsciously hoping to be reassured of life after death? ‘Bunkum!’ she thought, but immediately the contradiction came that, whether or not organized religion was bunkum, the Christian tradition represented two thousand years of largely humane thought, and might reasonably be expected to shed some light on the mystery of life. “You’re just a woolly liberal, Liz,” she muttered to herself, as she rose to keep silence while the rest of the congregation recited the creed.

“I wonder whether I could come and ask your advice about something, Rector?” enquired Liz Nightingale, as she shook hands after the service.

“I’d be pleased to see you; although I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you advice about anything.” The little smile accompanying the words gave them a humorous emphasis, but Liz sensed that, actually, he was in earnest. She appreciated, too, that he had been tactful enough not to suggest a home visit, thereby patronising her as elderly. “Is it an urgent matter, or will it wait until Wednesday? – if that suits you, of course.”

Liz calculated quickly. The cycles of weakness that seemed to characterize her condition came about every ten days, and lasted for about two days, so her next bout was due on – let me see – Friday. “Thank you, Rector, that’s most kind of you.”

Concerned. “I could talk to you sooner, if that would help?”

“No, Wednesday will be fine. I appreciate your seeing me so quickly.”

“Shall we say two o’clock, then?”

Mrs Nightingale nodded firmly. “Two o’clock will be ideal. Thank you.” She made her escape quickly. Making the appointment to discuss her mortality had been a little like arranging to talk to Death himself. ‘I hope that I’ll be brave enough to examine everything that’s troubling me when Wednesday comes,’ she thought.

*       *       *       *       *

Just before two o’clock on Wednesday, Liz Nightingale hesitated on the Vicarage doorstep. She felt – frightened. Of course, as soon as she realized this she shook herself mentally. “This will never do!” she exclaimed, and rang the bell firmly.

She accepted coffee and a biscuit and made small talk as she gathered her courage. James Malton smiled, nodded, and sipped at his own drink, watching her gradually relax.

“Your grandson, Oliver, sounds great fun. He must be quite significant in your life?”

If fifty years of amateur dramatics had taught Liz anything, it was how to pick up a cue.

“Ah, yes, well, significance. How astute of you, Rector.” Liz was silent a moment. “You see,” she said, “I’m not a believer – quite the reverse – but I felt that two thousand years of Christian thinking probably had some profound things to say about the human condition. And I’m puzzled, Rector. You see, my doctor tells me I shall die quite soon. Now, I’m not puzzled that I’m going to die – that seems entirely natural. Everything wears out, so why should I be any different? No, what puzzles me is why I’m alive. It just seems so unlikely, somehow, that I can consciously appreciate my own existence. The world is such a beautiful place.”

The rector paused for a moment, and then asked, “I suppose, as you’re an avowed non-believer, that neither the beauty of the world nor the unlikelihood of your conscious existence, persuade you of the existence of a creator God?”

“I don’t see how a creator answers the question. If he exists, where did he come from? If the answer is just that he exists, then why shouldn’t the universe just exist?”

“I could suggest that He might explain consciousness in a way that the physical universe doesn’t appear to, but I don’t think you’d accept that. Besides, it wouldn’t be very honest of me, as I’m aware of work being done to explore possible physical causes of consciousness.”

The rector smiled at Mrs Nightingale. “You’ve asked a big question, but is it the right question? To put it bluntly, do you have the time to even begin to make a small contribution towards its solution?”

Liz stared rather blankly at him. He waited, silent, still, alive. Then she laughed. “I’m trying to duck the issue, aren’t I? I don’t want to lose the world. I don’t want extinction – but as I can’t avoid it, I’d like to find some sort of assurance that my life has had some sort of meaning.”

“Now that’s a question which does fall within my sphere of professional competence. I’ll tell you what my faith teaches me, and you can see whether you think it helps.

Our physical universe was created by an intelligence that we call God. Part of His plan in creating the universe was that self-contained, self-aware intelligences should come into being – and, theologically speaking, evolution is a perfectly respectable way for that to happen. These intelligences would share something of His nature, and, ultimately, be able to share in His joy in His creation. He communicated with them, teaching them as much as they could accept at the time, and eventually He caused a great mystery to happen. He, Himself, came to live with His created beings in the form of the man whom we call Jesus Christ.”

Liz, listened in silence, struggling to keep an open mind – but it’s hard to quieten the scepticism of more than sixty years.

The rector continued quietly. “Jesus showed us that it is possible to lead a joyful and fulfilled life no matter what obstacles we face. He participated fully in every aspect of human life, including birth and death.”

Mrs Nightingale couldn’t resist the opportunity. “And sex?” she queried.

The rector laughed out loud with delight. “The bible is silent on that point. Church tradition inclines to celibacy but, you know, that would have been very unusual for a rabbi in first century Judea. Anyway, the bible makes it plain that He knew what human love was like by telling us about His close friendships with people, both men and women.

But I need to come to the point. The key fact of the life of Jesus was that it showed that God wants His creation to be perfected by the actions of his created beings as they follow the example of Jesus.

So our lives have a meaning in that we can align ourselves with the Creator’s purpose.”

“You put it very clearly, rector. Thank you. Unfortunately, the significance hangs on the premise of the omnipotent creator.”

“It does.”

The rector waited for Mrs Nightingale to express even the slightest interest in discovering the truth of his faith. She sat there, thinking, then “What a pity,” she said.

The Reverend James Malton (Cantab.) hid his disappointment as he said farewell to Liz Nightingale; and then wondered whether he was right to have done so.

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What Pegman Saw – An Educated Wife

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is the north coast of Finland.

The last indigenous people of Europe, the Sami, live here and in the north of Norway, Sweden and Russia, and have done from time immemorial.

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The Sami flag

An Educated Wife

“I wish you weren’t going to Kautokeino to study, Suoinná.”

Suoinná looked up at fiancé Gábe with a smile. ”Look at Njáveš! Already walking and not one year old!” She held out her hands; her tiny niece took three wobbly steps and sat down. Both girls laughed.

“Let’s not wait to get married; let’s marry next Easter. Then you can be with me as a reindeer herder. My co-operative have agreed to train me as a helicopter pilot to round up our beasts.”

“Oh, Gábe, that’s great news!” Suoinná popped Njáveš into the playpen, and hugged Gábe.

“So – you’ll marry me at Easter?”

Suoinná drew away.

“Gábe, I’m going to study. I shall learn how to share our songs with foreigners to teach them about the Sami people.”

“So – you won’t marry me?”

Suoinná regarded him with exasperation.

“That depends entirely on whether or not you want an educated wife!”

Evergreen Memories – long version

In “What Pegman Saw” last Saturday, I wrote a 150 word story “Evergreen Memories”. Several friends were kind enough to say they wanted to read more about the young couple in the story, so I’ve written a continuation that fills in their past, and hints at their future. It’s about 600 words long.

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Evergreen memories

College Green was our special place, wasn’t it, Peter? We often met here between morning lectures and afternoon practical classes. We sat on the grass and watched the gulls hover, soar, dive, brilliant white against the blue sky. We shared our lunch, our stories, our laughter; especially our laughter. We laughed a lot, at people, at things that happened, but mostly simply for joy at being alive and together.

Then one day you weren’t there. Nor the next day, nor the one after. You weren’t in classes either. You’d never told me your home address or phone number. I asked the University what had happened. “He left us voluntarily,” was all they would tell me. No address, no phone number; I wasn’t part of your family.

I still come and sit here occasionally, and remember, quietly.

A shadow falls on me.

“Annie?” The old man’s voice is tentative, disbelieving.

“Peter!”

We stare at each other, then I laugh and pat the bench beside me. Peter smiles and sits down.

“You can’t imagine how flattered I feel that you recognised me, Peter!”

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw you sitting there. I go this way every few months and I’ve always looked out for you – just in case.”

“How very romantic!”

The young Peter would have recognised my teasing; this Peter looks hurt. I take hold of his hand.

“I don’t live very far away, Peter, and I think of you every time I cross College Green. I like to remember the fun we had together.”

“You wear a ring,” he observes.

“I’m a widow.” A little bit of the sunshine dies; I’d been so happy with Frank.

“I’m sorry. Tactless of me.”

“Would I be equally tactless if I were to ask what happened to you all those years ago?”

“All those years ago. 1972. I had a phone call from my Mum; Dad was seriously ill in hospital. I raced back to London just in time to be with him as he died. He was only young, only thirty-nine. He’d never thought about dying, and he wasn’t insured. Mum had a breakdown.”

He paused. He looked away from me, his face full of pain. I pressed his hand gently.

“I tried to care for her, and find work to pay the bills, but all I could get were menial jobs that wouldn’t even pay the rent. Luckily for us, family stepped in.”

“I understand, Peter. It must have been awful for you. I’m not surprised you didn’t have time to make contact.”

“Well it was very difficult, but the real difficulty was that all my family are South African; Mum only came over to England because she married an Englishman. Before I knew where I was, I was on the plane to Jo’burg. I tried so hard to contact you before I left.”

He shook his head – and then he smiled.

“And before you ask, I’m divorced.”

“So lunch wouldn’t be out of the question then?”

He chuckled.

“I’d forgotten how impulsive you were. It was one of the things I loved about you.”

“Did you love me then, Peter? Did you?”

“Oh, Annie, how can you ask? I doted on you; I adored you; I worshipped the ground under your feet. Here, look – I wasn’t going to show you this, but…”

It was a rich man’s wallet that he pulled out, fine leather holding platinum credit cards – and there, protected by a transparent plastic cover, was a photograph of me, aged twenty, laughing.

“I remember you taking that photograph!” I exclaim with delight.

Peter rises, and, still holding his hand, I rise too.

“Where’s the best place for lunch?” he says.

 

What Pegman Saw – Evergreen Memories

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is Bristol in the UK.

 WPS - Evergreen Memories 180127

Evergreen memories

College Green was our special place, wasn’t it, Peter? We often met here between morning lectures and afternoon practical classes. We sat on the grass and watched the gulls hover, soar, dive, brilliant white against the blue sky. We shared our lunch, our stories, our laughter; especially our laughter. We laughed a lot, at people, at things that happened, but mostly simply for joy at being alive and together.

Then one day you weren’t there. Nor the next day, nor the one after. You weren’t in classes either. You’d never told me your home address or phone number. I asked the University what had happened. “He left us voluntarily,” was all they would tell me. No address, no phone number; I wasn’t part of your family.

I still come and sit here occasionally, and remember, quietly.

A shadow falls on me.

“Annie?” The old man’s voice is tentative, disbelieving.

“Peter!”

What Pegman Saw – Most Precious

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is Pico Duarte, Dominican Republic.

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Genre: Historical Fiction, c.1505 A.D.

Word count: 150

What Pegman Saw – Most Precious

I went by night to our chieftain. Like the Spaniards, his house was stone. It smelt odd.

“Sir, must you send Agueybana to work in the goldmine?”

I gave him my sweetest caresses, an evening of delights.

“I will speak to Don Ortiz. Agueybana will be fine. He’ll be back in a few weeks.”

Months passed. The King of Spain commanded that the best miners, Agueybana among them, were to work in the royal mine.

“Agueybana will be rewarded when his service is complete,” promised our chieftain.

I could bear our separation no longer. I set off by night, through trees. Creatures barked and howled and slithered in the darkness. I walked for seven days and nights, eating only fruit and drinking water from streams.

At last, scrambling over shattered rocks, I saw my beloved gazing out over the valley.

“Anacaona?” he gasped, and held me tightly in his arms.

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

Here is Episode 4 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”.

If you missed any of the previous episodes, you can find them here

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 1

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 2

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 3

 

The story is proving longer than I expected. I will publish successive episodes every Monday (except for next Monday, of course, which is Christmas Day).

I very much hope you enjoy it!

The bridefarer's choice - part 3

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

I wondered who was tolling the church bell, and who had died.

I wondered who was sitting so heavily on my chest, until I could hardly breathe.

I wondered why I felt so cold, so icy cold, as cold as death, and yet my right arm burned as though in fire.

I forced open my eyes to the sight of mud. I was lying in it. The tolling of the bell became quieter as I realised that it was my pounding head. There was nobody sitting on me, but my ribs ached all round.

Carefully – very carefully – I raised myself so that I was propped on my left arm. The pain made my eyes water.

Wait! What’s this?

There was a note tucked into my belt. Slowly I edged around until I could lean against the wall, freeing my left hand to hold the note. My right hand was useless; just too painful to move.

“Dear Bumpkin,

In a fight, a good man with a quarterstaff will beat a master swordsman every day of the year. There is no charge for this lesson.

However, you know what to do. I suggest you’re quick about it.”

With the note to remind me…

I cringed with embarrassment. I hadn’t come anywhere near him, and he had toyed with me. He hadn’t even bothered to disarm me, simply used the staff to – hell, yes, there’s no other word for it – he’d used the staff to chastise me. And when he grew bored, he lured me into a rush and clipped me behind the ear as I lunged. No wonder my head was throbbing!

My pride suggested I shouldn’t allow the beating to drive me out of Merrydown. Groaning, I forced myself to stand. ‘Which is worse,’ I asked myself. ‘Limp out of town in humiliation, leading my horse because it’s too painful to ride, or stay here and take another beating with perhaps an even worse ending.’ Put like that, it wasn’t a hard choice to make.

I didn’t cover many miles that day, or the next, but the pain in my right arm was gradually easing. When I came across an inn on the second evening, I started to hope that my luck had changed.

It was pleasant to eat hot food after a diet of bread and cold meats. A glass of wine eased the discomfort of my bruises. There were a few sidelong looks from men at the bar, and I wondered whether word had reached them of my business.

A small, wiry man with grey hair approached my table, and asked if he might join me.

“Be my guest.”

“Perhaps you will instead be my guest? I hope so anyway. Let me buy you another beaker of wine.” He gestured to the serving man at the bar, who brought two beakers.

“Sláinte mhaith”

“Sláinte agad-sa”

The wine was good, much better than I’d received with my meal. What would this stranger want in exchange?

“You go bridefaring I hear?”

“What is that to you?”

“Ho! I rush in too quickly. My wife always says so. My name is Cieran.”

“And mine is Diarmid.” I took the hand that he extended and shook it, trying not to let him see how painful the action was. “Yes, I’m bridefaring. I ask you again; what is that to you?”

“Let me tell you a story,” countered Cieran. “There was once a man, a poor man, who came into possession of a magnificent jewel, worth ten thousand times the value of the whole village in which he lived. A lucky man, yes?”

“Most certainly.”

Cieran nodded approval of my answer.

“That was what he thought too. He hid it somewhere very secret and very safe. He told nobody, not even his wife. He was a patient man, and for several years he gloated over his great good fortune but did nothing.

Then, one day, a nobleman came to the village with a dozen soldiers. He asked questions, many questions. With a shrinking heart, the peasant realised that the nobleman was trying to find the jewel. He thought, ‘I shall take it to the town and sell it.’ And then he thought, ‘But which town? Who will buy such a gem? How could I spend the money, even if I could sell the stone?’ He shuddered with terror, hid the jewel even more secretly, and cursed his evil fortune.

The nobleman toured all the villages, and, not finding the jewel, came back to the village where the peasant lived. He took five elders of the village, and announced “Tomorrow I shall flog these curs until they are half dead, unless whoever holds the jewel brings it to me before midnight tonight.”

The peasant dug up the box holding the jewel, opened it, and gazed at it for a long time. It was so beautiful. He wanted it more than anything in the world. But it wasn’t worth the torture of his friends. At last, he wrapped it in a kerchief and took it to the nobleman.

The nobleman took it, examined it and declared himself satisfied. He gave orders for the release of the elders. Then he drew his sword, and lopped off the peasant’s head, as casually as a young boy knocking conkers from a tree.”

I looked at him, trying to understand what he was telling me.

“Some more wine?” he asked.

I held out my beaker and he filled it.

“You see,” he said, “in our village we have the priceless jewel, and already the nobleman is searching.

Ten years ago, in the dead of night, a woman all clad in silk and velvet came to the Oldest in our village. She brought her daughter, nine years old, a beautiful child with hair the colour of the morning sun, and eyes that changed like the northern sea. The daughter of the King of Denmark, she told us, who had been driven out of his kingdom by his brother. She begged that we would look after the girl, keep her safe and keep her hidden.

For ten years, Freya – for that is her name – has been cared for by our Oldest as though she were her own flesh and blood. She has guarded her, and taught her the virtue of purity. But now the young men are watching her, courting her.”

He shook his head.

“A Danish thane and his warriors came to our village two weeks ago, asking questions. We kept Freya hidden, for the thane owed fealty to the old king’s brother; he meant nothing good to Freya, we felt certain.”

He looked at me, with a wry smile. “You begin to see my problem, I hope?”

Indeed I did. If Freya married within the village, either she would draw the Danes like hawks to a lure, or she would have to take her husband into exile with her.

“You come from over the mountains,” said Cieran. “That is far from our village, far from the danger of the Danes. You could safely take her home and make her your wife.”

“If she’ll have me,” I laughed. “I’ve not been lucky in love so far.”

Even as I said the words, I thought of Mairin. Had I really not been lucky, or had I made a poor choice when I passed by her dwelling on my bridefaring?

“Oh, she’ll have you. Our Oldest has the Sight, and she told me where to meet you, what you looked like and what your name is. She says that Freya will go with you out of love and bear your child.”

A rage of ambition boiled up within me. A king’s daughter, beautiful, more beautiful than I could imagine! Why, if I could offer my sword to her father, who knows what I could win?

“Where is your village, Cieran?” I demanded.

*       *       *       *

 

What Pegman Saw – Forgotten

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is the ghost town of Buckhorn, Iowa.

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Forgotten

Ann stepped lightly on the grass of the cemetery, leaving footprints in the dew. She was glad someone still cared enough to mow it neatly. She laid a bunch of flowers from her yard on the grave of her Aunt Betty, murmured a doubtful prayer and walked downhill to the disused church.

“See you at the old church, 8:30 on Thursday May 23rd” Mike’s last email had said, a fortnight ago.

He’d been away a long time, three years, treading the far places of the globe and following his dreams. How would he look? How would he feel?

The sun became hot. Ann found herself a shaded spot, heady with the scent of wildflowers and loud with the insistent buzzing of honeybees. 8:30 came – and went. At 10:00 she sighed and left.

“I guess he forgot.”

In the cemetery, the dew had already disappeared; already the grass had forgotten her.