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Ministers of Grace

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Drusilla reads to her sisters every night by candlelight, Mr. Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell, bent low over the faded pages (bought second hand for a few pennies), well-worn with use, familiar as the words of the rosary.  Eugenia fidgets and Arabella’s eyes grow dreamydistant, but Drusilla savors each word, like nonpareils (tasted just once, the gift of a sailor uncle visiting while at port, the last time before he returned to his mistress the sea and was buried in her embrace forever) melting on her tongue.

And always, always before the candle sputters out, Dru reads a few chapters from the Holy Book, swept away by the ancient Hebrew poetry, the harshness or beauty of the stories, the power of God.

Her favorite story is in the book of II Kings: the city where the prophet of God is staying is surrounded by the enemy, the King of Syria’s troops sent to capture Elisha because the King’s servant tells him that Elisha, the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber.  (The prophet is a man of God, and he knows things that should be unknown, sees things that should be unseen, speaks words that had been unspoken.  Why should Mummy tremble and clutch her rosary when Drusilla does the same?)

The troops surround Dothan and the prophet’s servant is terrified.  But the man of God says, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.  Then Elisha prays that the Lord will open the servant’s eyes, and the servant sees them: behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.  Angels, all around.

The story makes Drusilla feel safe.  When she thinks of the angels encamped around her, all the dark dreams, all Mummy’s fears, all the neighbor’s scowls and cruel words melt away.

--

Drusilla dreams of angels.  Of being swaddled in warmth and swimming in a sea of liquid light.  Of a song so beautiful it makes her want to weep and eyes so kind they make her want to laugh for joy. 

Wings of feather, of cloud, of light wrap tight around her and bless her.

She awakes from the dreams smiling.

--

The first time, it’s the baker’s wife Mary’s baby.  Drusilla watches her walking to market, her stomach great with child, and she knows that the baby will die at birth.

She is hanging freshly-washed laundry with Mummy in the garden; it’s spring, lavender scented and blue-skied.  She does not question her knowledge (does not wonder how she knows it or think it at all strange: it simply is), but she feels her heart swell with sorrow for poor, pretty young Mary.  “Poor Mrs. Fraser,” she says, straightening a quilt on the line.  “And she so pleased about the baby, too.”

Mummy, always a nervous woman, is startled, then appalled when she asks what her daughter means and Drusilla tells her.  “There’s no reason to think that.  Mary is a healthy woman.  Her babe will be born safe.”

But sure enough, three months later on a hot summer’s night, the midwife stops in as she leaves the baker’s house, her face drawn, her shoulders sagging, to tell Mummy that Mary the baker’s wife’s baby has gone to be with the angels.

Mummy boxes her ears, slaps her face, demanding to know how Drusilla knew.  Drusilla sobs, pleads, repents, and screams that she doesn’t know.  For three exhausting days, Drusilla inhumes herself in her room, ignores her sisters’ pleas, does not listen to Papa’s orders to come out.  When she emerges, she and Mummy do not meet each others’ eyes.

She learns her lesson well.  When she knows that Frank Harris will develop consumption, when she knows that the Widow Peters will marry the constable, when she knows that the rain won’t fall this year or that the cold will be more bitter than usual this winter, she keeps these secrets to herself.  It will do no good to voice them; what she has seen will come to pass no matter what she does.

But when she has the vision, when she stands on the front stoop and watches the men head off to the mines, when the darkness comes over her and she hears the crash like thunder, when her stomach knots up and her blood runs cold, she has to tell Mummy, has to plead with her to stop them from going, to warn them, to save them.  But Mummy tells her to keep her peace.

But Drusilla knows what she knows, and when they hear the rumble, when they drag the broken bodies back home, she flees to the church as quickly as she can.

--

Drusilla dreams of angels.  Wings and flashing swords, voices like cymbals or trumpets, arms like gold or ivory, eyes like fire or thunderclouds.

Their wings stir up cyclones, their eyes explode volcanoes, their voices begat earthquakes.

She awakes from the dreams shivering.

--

Her oldest sister Arabella is betrothed to the goldsmith’s apprentice.  The sisters and their fragile, nervous Mummy spend their days amid snowy fields of linen, merino, muslin, and lace, using every scrap of fabric and wasting nothing (money is always tight, Papa’s wages never certain, but his pride will not allow his daughter to enter another man’s house with the clothes of a pauper, so they all eat a few less bites at dinner and retire to bed earlier so as to save candles and fuel).  Dru’s world is punctuated by buttons and ribbon, bound by crinolines and corsets, swaddled in chemises and petticoats.

Arabella and Eugenia both envy Drusilla’s skills at fancywork, Eugenia too impatient, Arabella too difficult to please to be of the right temperament for those finest of stitches.   But for Dru herself, the work is soothing, all order and beauty, and when she focuses on the snowy fabric and the motion of the needle, she can forget about death and darkness, about visions and the priest’s terrifying words. Drusilla will never have a dowry of her own—she has known her vocation since her confirmation (the world is too bright, too certain in its relentlessness: she longs for the cool shadows of the convent, the flickering candles and the sunlight distilled through the jeweled tones of stained glass, the comfort of the liturgy, the chants and songs as familiar as the scent of Mummy’s bread baking)—so she focuses all of her attention on Arabella’s, adorning each garment with a perfect rose, a flawless fleur-de-lis, a faultless letter.

The sheet for the bridal bed is her special project: with each stitch, she feels her fears dissolve.  In careful embroidery, she stitches the figure of an angel, fiery sword lifted to protect, surrounded by the words, The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.

A blessing.  A reminder.  A penance.

--

Drusilla dreams of angels.  There is a lady, small and beautiful, with golden hair and luminous skin, who looks like the angel on the Christmas card Drusilla has saved in the small wooden box under the bed she shares with her sisters (the card was pressed into her mittened hands on Christmas Eve when she was eleven by Annie Forster, the only friend Drusilla ever had beside her sisters.  Annie lived across the street, her father was the blacksmith, and she would pop her curly red head over the top of the gate, grin a gap-toothed grin and a cheery ‘ello.  But Annie only lived there for seven months, and she moved away two days after New Year after giving Dru the card.  Dru treasures it—the friendship, the card all lacy and flowered—all the more because of its fleeting nature).

The other angel is as dark as the lady is fair, a tall, wide-shouldered man, so handsome that Drusilla blushes every time she remembers him.  He looks like the angel in the stained glass window at church, the one wielding a sword of fire to banish Adam and Eve from Eden (the look on Eve’s face always broke Dru’s heart, even when she was a very little girl, though Adam looked sulky and defiant.  Dru loves apples, a rare treat: their sharp scent, the way the white flesh looks when the burgundy skin is bitten away, the juice dribbling down her chin: she has always felt that she shares Eve’s weakness).

Their eyes, though, are fearsome and their smiles fell, and then, before Drusilla’s dreaming eyes, their faces shift with a creak of cartilage and become the faces of devils.  Their laughter chills her blood and makes her heart stop beating (the fact that she still finds them beautiful—their shining golden eyes, their fierce smiles, their brutally graceful movements—terrifies her even more).

She awakes from the dreams screaming.

--

Three days before the wedding, the angels come to the door.  Drusilla is getting ready for bed, slipping into her nightgown, braiding her hair when she feels an icy chill.  She freezes only for a moment, but by the time she flies out of the girls’ bedroom and into the hall, Eugenia has already invited them in.

Arabella’s dowry was laid out for the ladies to see earlier in the day and was to be packed in the morning: each garment has been lovingly spread out in the tiny parlor.  Not the finest fabrics, but each piece labored over with so much love that it has become a work of art.

Most of the pieces are white.  The blood as it splatters screams crimson against it, so red that it hurts Drusilla’s eyes.  She stares at the scarlet blossoming, stares and stares and stares, and she doesn’t hear the screams.  Doesn’t hear the tearing of flesh.  Doesn’t hear the evil laughter that has echoed every night in her dreams.

She does hear the silence after.  The clock ticking.  The fire sputtering.  But no breathing except her own (angels, she thinks distantly, don’t breathe).  The silence terrifies her more than anything she has ever known.

She flees to the convent.

The angels pursue her.

(She should have known that you can’t outrun angels.)

--

She should have remembered that angels are not soft and kind, otherwise, why the warning?  The first thing angels always say when they appear is, Fear not.