Do not use
— Choose (your) peace.
Do not use
— Choose (your) peace.
I wrote this story as a submission to the Bristol Short Story competition and the Scottish Arts Club Short Story competition. It did not make the long list for either, and now that I am over the disappointment I can share it with you.
It is a very special story drawn from a real-life experience.
I tend to research the details in my stories and I include little bits of symbolism that become the golden thread throughout the narrative. Names of characters are chosen for their meaning, as are the plants and trees featured. I love details.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
They walked in peaceful silence, her small companion’s gloved hand nestled trustingly in hers. The air was so cold it felt brittle on her face. Occasionally, the crisp crunch of the boy’s red wellingtons on a frozen puddle was the only sound announcing their presence.
It was a clear morning. The memory of last night’s frost still glistened on the skeletal hedgerows. With a slight shiver, she folded the collar of her coat against the February chill. A sigh escaped her lips—her warm breath a fleeting vapour. Within seconds, a mere memory. The bones of a shabby cottage came into view. It was much like any of the other cottages dotted along the country lane, but for the presence of an immense yew tree, its gnarled branches held aloft like an ancient guardian.
The sudden snap of a twig in the mossy, damp undergrowth beneath the yew, drew her attention. She gazed groundward—a robin—recently fledged, dull brown feathers hopping along. Fearless, its beady eyes seemed to examine them quizzically.
‘A baby robin in February!’ She exclaimed. ‘And all alone. It would be a miracle if you survive. Poor wee thing.’
Miracles. There would be none here today.
Sensing that he was being ignored, the boy tugged insistently on her hand, rewarding her attention with a lopsided, snot-covered smile, his blue almond-shaped eyes twinkling mischievously.
‘Too cold to be daydreaming out here, Noah. Let’s knock. Get inside where it’s warm, eh, my boy?’
Flecks of blue paint stuck to her bobbly gloves as she knocked on the tired door. A shambling step within held the promise of relief from the cold. Reluctantly, the stubborn lock gave way to the scraping insistence of a key.
‘Reverend.’ A voice like gravel. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’ A sudden smile took life on the weather-beaten features as the small boy peeped shyly at him from behind the woman’s black coat.
‘Hello, Fergus.’ She stumbled over her words. ‘My son… the babysitter cancelled. I had to bring him with. He won’t be any trouble.’
The old man shook his head, ‘you’re alright, Reverend, the lad can sit here by the fire. I can do with a bit of company.’
‘How is she, Fergus? Any change?’
Shoulders bowed. He was a tired man in need of relief. ‘She hasn’t eaten in days. I can’t even get her to drink a bit of water. She’s just hanging on. Always was a fighter, my Nell. I thought, maybe if you could pray with her…?’ What remained unsaid, hung naked in the air between them.
‘Of course,’ she nodded, taking his trembling hands in hers. Desperate to give the old man hope, but knowing she had none to give. Times like these her dog-collar seemed to expose her worn faith. For Fergus and Nell, the season for hope was long gone. ‘I’ll go through and sit with her. Say a prayer.’
The old man nodded at her and shuffled to the sink to fill a slightly-battered kettle with water. ‘I’ll put the kettle on, then, make us some tea, eh, Noah? And a biscuit would be just the ticket today.’ Smiling at the boy, he patted the seat of a rocking chair near the kitchen window. The boy scrambled onto it, beaming a satisfied toothy smile as the chair started rocking back and forth.
The woman, now divested of the encumbrances of winter—coat, hat, gloves, boots—turned towards the doorway. Her stockinged feet cold on the flagstones, she padded gently towards the bedroom at the far end of the dimly-lit hallway. Reaching the entrance, she paused and drew in her breath. As if to inhale courage from deep within.
The muted strains of a cello concerto were playing somewhere in the room. Elgar. Faded lace curtains at the window were open wide allowing the pale wintery light to dance gently on the bed quilt. The figure in the bed so slight. So still. Nell. Already, it seemed as if she were waiting on her passage home. Not quite ready to go, but almost… Waiting.
Gently the woman folded herself into the deep armchair beside the bed—enveloped by years of worn comfort. Someone had placed a bone china jug of sweet violets on the nightstand. Fergus. The handle had a crack and the gilt had rubbed off in places, but the fragrance of the delicate purple flowers was sweet and smelled like spring. A defiant sign of life.
‘Hello, Nell. It’s me,’ she whispered, ‘I’ve come to see how you are. It’s cold outside today. I saw a young robin. Fancy that, eh? Just hopping about in the undergrowth. Early for robins, I think.’ Softly she let the words fall from her tongue. Like a fragile offering to her friend. I see you. You’re not forgotten. Reaching for Nell’s hand, she gently stroked the paper-thin skin with her thumb. Skin barely covering the bones of once-proud fingers now cruelly twisted with age.
‘Shall I read to you? A poem, or a psalm? Psalm 23? That was always… is, your favourite, not?’
Up, down, up, down the frail chest rising and falling to its own rhythm. Breaths so shallow they were almost imperceptible. Eyes closed to this world. Life, barely there. Just waiting.
It was as she reached for the dog-eared bible just behind the jug of violets, that the boy suddenly appeared next to her. Startled, she jumped up, took his hand ready to guide him from the room. Ready to shield him from the starkness of impending death. There was too much life oozing from his little body. It felt wrong, here. In this place. But the boy resisted and with a stubborn shake of his head, lips puckered determinedly, he shuffled right up to the edge of the bed. His face so close to Nell’s that their noses almost touched.
A sharp intake of breath from the doorway. Fergus.
The woman looked over her shoulder at the old man. His face was grey. Fatigue. Shock. Probably both. His eyes fixed on the scene playing out before him.
The boy was stroking Nell’s cheek with a chubby hand that still carried traces of the shortbread he had been eating earlier. A pale crumb stuck to the velvety skin under her left eye.
A hush fell over the room.
And then, her voice a raspy whisper, ‘You’ve come… I knew you would.’ Her breath came shallow. One last effort, ‘my boy…’
The boy’s hand gently fell to the quilt.
‘Come, Noah.’ The woman, hands resting on her son’s small shoulders, stepped back as Fergus, with raw tears finding their way down leathery cheeks, slowly took his place next to the bed where his entire life lay.
It was much later, after Donald MacLaine from the undertakers had been, and the boy had woken from an exhausted nap in her arms, that Fergus had carefully placed the black and white photograph of the boy, on the kitchen table in front of her. The corners rubbed bare from years of desperate longing.
‘We had a son. Over the years we had given up hope of ever having children, and then when Nell was almost forty-five years old, our Ewan arrived.’ He glanced away at the boy happily rocking back and forth once more in the old rocking chair. ‘He also…’ meeting her gaze with a tired smile, ‘He also had Down Syndrome, but that didn’t matter to us. Never was a child loved more. He never left Nell’s side. He was the greatest gift we could have ever wished for. Nell adored him.’ His voice started shaking. Tears fell onto the smiling image of his little boy. A child; frozen in time. ‘We were so happy, until one winter, he fell ill. Some sort of chest infection, they said. He died that winter, and so did a part of my Nell. He was only five-years old. She never got over his death.’
His gaze came to rest once more on the young boy seated there in his kitchen, as his heart remembered another boy from another time. ‘She was waiting for him. She was waiting just for him to come and fetch her.’
That afternoon, as the sun caressed the horizon, the woman and the boy made their way home. A sudden shaft of light broke through the branches of the yew tree. And there, bathed in the last rays of the sun, was the young robin. He was no longer alone. A flash of crimson revealed the presence of an adult robin, perched in one of the lower branches.
‘You’ve found your mum,’ the woman whispered, ‘all is well here, little one, fly home now.’
the things i once
up my throat,
crawl from my mouth.
and i have to
a home to live.
—challenging my beliefs.
You say that I speak of (my) darkness too much.
With my heart stripped bare before your eyes,
my shadows a gift for the
Don’t you know that light that shines too brightly,
When did we decide
that the worth of another
lies in the amount of melanin in their skin?
We must undo this evil.
For twelve years you bled.
Twelve, long years you watched helplessly, as your lifeblood flowed away.
Nothing could stop it.
No doctor, no healer, no remedy.
You must have been tired.
All the time.
The Bible speaks not of this, but it’s true… you would have been chronically tired.
I am sure that fear became your constant companion?
It must have.
I often wonder whether you were betrothed to someone?
Chosen, by someone, before…?
The Bible says nothing of this either.
Your personal life.
How old you were.
Whether you had ever known the joy of feeling a baby move within your belly.
Whether you knew the security of a husband’s love?
At least…. before.
But these are not mentioned.
Just that you bled.
For so long.
For too long.
The rest I read between the lines.
That you were desperate.
That you were scared.
Did you call out to Him?
Beg Him? For mercy? For healing?
Did you wonder where He was?
Whether He really cared?
My faith is like a wave on the ocean.
One moment it swells… full of hope… and then.
Splashing into a million directions.
Paused for the next pregnant moment.
Did they whisper about you?
Did you try and go about your daily duties… the market… the washing… did you walk about with your head hanging low?
Knowing you couldn’t look.
It would hurt too much to see their faces.
Knowing their piety is your shame.
Did they gossip amongst themselves?
Oh, righteously of course!
…about your sin?
What evil you had done that made Him punish you as He did?
Did you carry shame like a mantel on your bowed shoulders?
Was your pain and loneliness etched like a map across features old-before-their-time?
The other women would have avoided you.
Everyone would have.
Everybody looking away as you slunk past.
Afraid to even look at you in case you made them unclean, too.
The shame, with you every day and nobody to help.
Nobody to free.
Did you feel that way?
She, who has no worth.
As if for a brief second, God turned His face from you.
Never to look upon you again.
I know that feeling, too.
Did your heart, ache, dear one?
Did you feel a desperation so intense, that it almost tore the fabric of your being?
And then, that day that you heard of Him.
The One they called ‘The Healer.’?
Did you know immediately?
Did your spirit surge with hope, or was it just a flutter?
At first a quiet stirring?
Hope, singing in the dark.
Did you wonder whether the stories that made their way back to your village were rumours, or Truth, come at last?
I think you knew.
I think your heart must have beaten wildly.
I imagine you bent low over the well. Drawing water.
Heaving buckets with a body tired from blood ebbing away.
Stopping every now and then, to draw breath.
You hear some talk. You strain to hear.
What are the other women saying? Can it be, you think?
That He is here?
The One who heals?
The One who speaks Freedom?
Can it finally be?
For a second everything inside you goes still.
Tired heart fighting like a caged sparrow.
You run. Wildly groping, dropping your bucket of water on the way, the drops spilling on the dry, dusty ground.
Like an offering.
But you don’t notice because desperation spurs you on.
Breathless you try to locate the sound.
Your breath comes ragged.
You are close.
So close, but then.
Fall to the ground.
Despair mocking you now.
Who do you think you are?
Keeping you out.
Forcing the likes of you, away.
I see your tears.
Hot with disappointment.
I see your chest heave with a desperate exhaustion.
Anger, crushing your spirit.
It crushed mine, too.
How would you ever get close?
The ones who (think they) hold the tickets to His Presence.
They’re still around today.
You wouldn’t know, but yes, they’re still here.
How would you ever get past the ones who follow him?
Disciples, they call them?
They hedge Him in.
Protectively… against the pushing, over-excited crowds.
They stand like soldiers… guarding… they won’t let you close.
Did you feel frantic? So close to the One whom your spirit knew…
Even if you did not.
But then, I see you drop to the ground… crawling… trying to protect your head from the blows.
Trampling feet of the crowd.
Trying to see where His feet are.
Dust stinging your eyes… streaking your face with filthy tears.
Yes, you do! If you can only touch His hem.
You push forward.
Hands in soil and eyes on hem.
Eyes on Him.
You keep pushing. The desperation in your face – etched.
Your hands reaching… almost there…. almost there.
A man’s foot crushes your hand.
The pain threatens to crush.
Almost too much to bear, but you inch forward.
Tears flowing freely now, but still, you crawl.
Still, you crawl.
Because you know.
Something has ignited within you.
You are a prisoner seeking Freedom.
You KNOW…. That this man, Jesus, that He is the One.
How were you to know then, how could you see then, that His blood would be spilt?
On parched earth.
Just like yours.
On parched hearts.
Just like mine.
That His blood would redeem you.
Would redeem me.
Clean made Unclean, to redeem the unclean.
To make new.
The moment your hand brushed that dusty hem. That dirty, soiled hem.
You felt it.
Power surging through your body!
But, the people… someone must have noticed you by then?
Must have seen you crawl in the dust.
Where you belong.
Did they draw back in fear?
But then, dear one, did it still matter?
Did you still care?
How could you explain? How could they ever understand?
Someone touched me.
His disciples looking at Him in confusion.
Heads shaking, frowns seeking.
Your world stops.
Silence settles on the crowd.
How could He know?
How could He possibly have known?
That in all the hundreds pushing against Him… shouting His Name… how did He know that you.
That you had dared to touch Him.
Were you afraid, when trembling, you stood up to face Him?
Did fear have a choke-hold on your throat as you stumbled over words?
Tripping over a multitude of explanations that would see you not cast out?
Like a leper.
And when He moved through the few still brave enough to stand around the filth of you.
When He, the Holy One, took your work-scarred hands and looked at you, and smiled.
What did your heart feel?
Was He the first to touch your hand in twelve long years?
Did your skin register the touch of Another?
And when He looked into your eyes and smiled.
Not, with pity.
Not, with disgust.
When He told you that your faith… your faith, had healed you?
When He said it again… louder this time, so that everyone could hear… could HEAR that you were free!
Did you weep?
I know you did.
I did, too.
How could you not…
Freedom had come for you.
Grace had found you.
Redemption had whispered your name.
You knew, didn’t you?
Because I did, too.
Luke 8 v 43 – 47
© 2017. Liezel Graham. All rights reserved.
There is a type of man
with a heart as grey,
and dreary as a damp winter’s day,
who will compel you to
dim your light;
monochrome your kaleidoscope of colours,
in order to feel like a real man.
This is not Love.
No matter how it is dressed up.
He is a fatal disease that will
from the inside out,
until the only thing left of you is a
A ghostly imprint of the
you were created to be.
Run from him.
Do not look back.
You are so much more.
– Things we must teach our daughters.