Flann had not anticipated how the missing cradle would chill her.

Flann had not anticipated how the missing cradle would chill her.

All these months it had stood before the image of a steep, gravelly bank, much like the one she had walked that windy night only two weeks before. In Osh’s painting it seemed the deed had been done. No one stood on the shore.

'It's a shame to hide these walls behind furniture, isn't it?'

“It’s a shame to hide these walls behind furniture, isn’t it?” she asked the Abbot, in brazen defiance of her own dark thoughts. She managed a tremulous laugh.

“They remind me of Norway,” he said gravely.

“They are supposed to be Scotland.”

“I see Osh has never visited Scotland.”

He closed the door behind him, so gently that Flann only knew it by the sudden softening of Cat’s cries and Liadan’s squeals in the hall below.

He closed the door behind him.

Gradually his silence built up behind her like water behind a dam, until she had to speak.

“He… It’s for love of me he did paint them,” she said, switching to Gaelic, for in spite of the door she knew Osh could still hear. “So I would not be missing my home.”

“Then we must forgive him his errors of… scale.”

'Then we must forgive him his errors of... scale.'

The room was so empty Flann found nothing more to say. Before her were her small bedside chest, its drawers emptied, and two hard chairs, and the window. Behind her…

“He will – he will paint whatever I like in our new house,” she blurted. “I’m thinking it’s trees I shall be having. Deep forest. No horizons.”

She did not know what had made her say it. She did not even know what it meant. She turned to the Abbot and giggled as though it meant nothing.

She turned to the Abbot and giggled as though it meant nothing.

His continuing silence obliged her to gabble on.

“Connie is meaning to take this room, though she might have had one of the larger. I’m thinking she’s beginning to believe Eithne will be no more returning, and she doesn’t like sleeping in the big bed alone – ”

She had said the word. She had named it. She fought against its pull for a few last, fluttering seconds. Then she looked.

She had said the word.

It was only an anonymous bed. It was not even her bed, without her knitted spread and lace-​​edged pillow. It was made up with the plainest, grayest sheets Cat owned, but it was made – neatly, crisply made.

She had not anticipated how the sight would chill her, though she could not have said what she had expected to see. The dent of his head in the pillow? A stray hair? A smear of blood? The traces of his body had been erased as cleanly as the traces of hers, like tracks on a shore washed smooth after every tide.

In desperation she tried to speak another defiant phrase. “It’s in this bed I bore my daughter,” she declared.

Then the wave came up and submerged her, swirling over her, hissing in her ears, “His… his…” Not his, but his.

'It's in this bed I bore my daughter.'

Her cheeks were drenched, though she had not heard herself sob or even gasp – she must not, for Osh could still hear in spite of the door.

“Where is he lying?” she whispered. She had not known whom to ask; she had not dared.

Father Aelfden put his arm around her and pulled her so close she could not see his face. “At the abbey,” he murmured slowly, soothingly, almost dreamily, like a man describing a distant home to a foreign bride. “Below the orchard, on a south-​​sloping hill, sunny and warm and dry. I shall – ” He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I shall show you someday, if you like. In the spring.”

Flann tried to speak her gratitude, but another wave of tears spilled through her lashes, down her cheeks, and dripped off her chin. The Abbot pulled one of her wet hands away from her face and held it against his breastbone, clasped within his own.

The Abbot pulled one of her hands away from her face and held it against his breastbone.

“I never meant for this,” she whispered pleadingly.

“Nor I.”

Flann sucked her upper lip – she dared not sniffle out of fear her husband would hear. “He was never meaning harm.”

“No, I think he never was,” the Abbot agreed.

His arm tightened slightly around her, just past the point of merely lying over her back and on to truly holding her. Its slight resistance when she tried to lean away simply invited her to lean against him.

When her forehead touched his cheek she found it wet. The priest was crying too, as silently as she.

“Osh says I mustn’t feel sorry for him,” she whimpered.

He sighed and slipped his hand out of hers, but they stood so close that he had to stroke the backs of his fingers over her breast to free it.

'Its slight resistance when she tried to lean away simply invited her to lean against him.'

“Flann,” he said, “do not listen to anyone who would have you withhold your compassion from one who has suffered. No man is so evil as to be unworthy of that.”

Flann tipped back her head and breathed deeply through her mouth. Another flood of tears poured down the back of her throat, and she swallowed them all.

“I have prayed for him in my heart,” she said softly. Her voice gurgled like an old woman’s, but she wanted this defiant confession made aloud, if only once. This priest was the one man who would not think it a sin.

“I also,” he said.

'I also.'

His bristly beard brushed across her temple, and she held her head still, recognizing it, welcoming it.

Her cheek knew intimately the feel of his coarse robe, and if he had undressed her, the length of her body would have known it too: the slubbed wool scratching her skin, rasping almost painfully across her nipples; the cold iron of his dangling crucifix pressed against her thigh; the hard knot of his rope belt; and the warmer, harder thing that would be poking her in the belly from beneath the belt and beneath the robe.

'I also.'

Her tears were wetting the cloth and soaking through, wakening the scent of the sweat of the man beneath the spicy incense of many Masses. If she undressed him she knew his shoulder would be salty, but his coarse, coppery hair would still be as spicy as the robe, and his beard would be salty and spicy together, and it would rasp its way down the length of her body, almost painfully over her nipples, and down her belly, and down between her legs, where he would tease her with his scratchy beard and his velvety tongue until she cried.

It was his mouth she wanted to feel, and she lifted her face in blind, hungry, whimpering search of it, like a baby in the dark – but the cheek her lips met was withered, and the red-​​gold beard shorn away.

Flann was too sickened to scream: she was a girl in one of the old stories, waking from a dream of love to find herself kissing a corpse.

Then she opened her eyes, and it was worse. She was kissing the Abbot: verily a man of God, and not a sinner such as Brude had humbly admitted himself to be.

Then she opened her eyes, and it was worse.

She heard Sebastien speak as clearly as if he still lay on the bed behind her: “Aelfden is a saint.” And she, she was one of the wickedest women ever born.

In her desperation she stuttered the first foolish explanation that came to mind: “I was only trying to see whether your beard smelt of incense like Brude’s.”

Then it was worse – much worse.

“Brude!” the Abbot gasped – only once, for he had understood.

Then Flann freely sobbed.

Then Flann freely sobbed.