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When I was a girl there were four maidens’ garlands hanging from the church rafters. Now I am grown there are five.
The fifth is the prettiest, of course. On the silk gloves tied to the middle her name is stitched. Elizabeth Longshaw, aged 22, August 17th, 1823. When I bow my head in prayer I feel the fingers point at me.
I did not want to help make her garland. I wept and protested my grief was too much. But my mother insisted. ‘It is the duty of the village,’ she said, her eyes wet with tears. ‘We will honour her memory as we have always done with those maidens who die afore they are wed. A bridal bouquet cannot be hers; this garland takes its place.’
So my trembling fingers helped bend the wire into shape and fasten the paper ribbons and flowers to the frame. I was careful not to cut my fingers on the sharp edges. We could not have blood on our hands for it would stain the purity of the wreath.
Sometimes a dog barks in the churchyard and I am forced to remember how it happened. Our screams had set all the dogs of the village barking that day. As Elizabeth’s head slipped under the foaming waters, the sun had slipped behind a cloud and the summer of my youth was over.
The master had been the first to arrive at the river. He tore into the water in his riding boots and fine jacket, while women with flour-whitened arms clattered from their kitchens, all driven by fear that it was their child.
Elizabeth’s mother was amongst them. When she saw us girls, waist-deep in the river, our hands thrashing the surface, she ran in, her skirts ballooning around her. At each call of her daughter’s name her body lurched as if pierced by arrows.
Elizabeth. The girl who stole men’s hearts with the blue eyes of a kitten and the voice of a bird, gentle and sweet. The girl who loved to laugh and sing, lifting the hearts of all those around her. She was everyone’s darling, but loved by one man more than the others, and more than was right. We knew she stole to his bed in the middle of the night, saw the looks they gave each other when they passed on the lane. She did not warm our hearts with the tenderness of her smile.
It did not take long for the body to rise to the surface downstream. The beautiful ivory face drifted through the water, willow fronds caught in her golden locks. The master bent to lift her, and as he walked back over the bridge to the church, his face was set to match the stillness of the body. But as he laid Elizabeth gently on the stone floor of the church, there was pain in his eyes. When the priest came running to join him at the altar he turned away to hide his tears, and we knew. In Elizabeth’s lifeless body were his hopes and dreams of a love that would never be celebrated with fiddles and dancing. And our faces, too, showed sorrow at losing our friend.
We told them then, in the church, of how it had happened. We four girls had set out with Elizabeth that bright August morning for our picnic. The lanes were full of the scent of honeysuckle, a summer blue sky untroubled by clouds. Our laughter rang out in the valley as we skipped to the meadow, singing of lovers true. We were as free as birds, our arms unburdened by work, our legs lightened by the promise of a summer’s day that belonged to us alone.
Elizabeth wore a pretty new red ribbon in her hair and we teased her about it. Anna merrily swung the basket that held the bread and cheese and the white linen cloth. When we reached the riverbank we unfolded the cloth and cast it into the air before letting it drift to the ground. When our stomachs were full we lay back, our faces warm in the heat of that day.
The cool water beckoned us when the sun was at its highest. Slipping off our stockings, we splashed into the icy water, squealing in the coldness, the pebbles slippery beneath our toes. Emily glimpsed a trout, and we all hastened to see the mottled brown back weaving through the river.
As we leaned closer to the water, something stirred. It was not the trout but the water itself that moved. It stirred up stones from the riverbed and tossed them around in tiny circles. As the circles grew bigger our legs could no longer be seen in the frothy spume. Our bodies were pulled into the torrent, an invisible hand dragging us below. We fought our way through the raging waters until we reached the riverbank, then lay, hearts pounding, amongst the reeds. And still we heard the roar of the whirlpool that, we said, had taken Elizabeth.
At eventide that same day we four friends carried the garland behind her coffin,
and, after her body was placed in the earth, we raised it to the rafters in the church. Then, heads bowed, our hands came together in a circle of friendship. And we thought of when our hands last came together. Upon the head of Elizabeth as we held her beneath the water until she struggled no more.
The paper flowers are brittle now, the gloves greyed with candle soot of many years. I think they are as cages for pretty little birds, these garlands. Cages from which the hearts of those lost too soon have flown. And when the fingers point me out, I tell myself that Elizabeth, with the voice of a songbird that tempted the one she should not have, was only set free by us.
|Publication date:||1st March 2021|
|Primary Genre||LoveReading Very Short Story Award|