Bess’s face showed in the window as Cecily approached the Walpoles’ house, then disappeared to pop through the open door. “Dice and bones, Cessy, what brings ye here at this time of night?”
|star & tree, a photo by Ctd 2005 on Flickr.|
Gracia waited patiently as Cecily licked her lips and avoided Bess’s inquisitive stare. She didn’t feel that Bess would really understand what she was feeling, not this time. But maybe Gracia somehow could.
“Yes, I would like to speak to you. Ask you something.”
Giving Bess a nod, Gracia took Cecily’s arm and guided her back out into the night, then softly pulled the door closed behind them. Once out in the darkness they walked to the shelter of a nearby tree and pulled their hoods up against the drizzle. Cecily could barely see Gracia’s face, but felt her steady look. “What do you need, Cessy? I can see you’re terribly upset.” Cecily gave a little nod but stayed silent, rubbing the tips of her fingers with her thumb. “I understand that your mother is feeling no better?” Another nod. Gracia sighed. “You’ll have to tell me what the matter is if I’m to be of help! Do you need food? Herbs? Any care that we can give?”
Cecily shook her head and tried to get the words out, “Mistress Gracia, my Mum’s been weak for years, but lately it’s gotten worse. She sick with something—a chill she says—but I’m afraid…. I see her getting thinner, and she’s always coughing, coughing, coughing. I can’t bear it! I’ve tried so hard—prayed so much—done all I can,” she started to choke and came to a stop.
The response came quiet and throbbing, “I’ve seen it all, my girl. You’ve aged years over the past few months, haven’t you? And I’ve been wondering if there’s aught the rest of us could do.”
Cecily stamped her boot on the grass and pretended that the wetness on her cheeks was rain. “Give me answers! That’s all I ask. There has to be something I can do to help her. I’m tired of being—weak. I’m tired of not being able to do anything and simply sitting by and watching her…go away.”
“There are no easy answers, child. Sickness is a natural part of life, and it cannot always be thwarted.” For several minutes they stood side by side but silent. Gracia rubbed her temples as if digging deep into her mind, deliberating. Then she spoke softer than ever. “You want to be the one to decide. Is that it? You want to have the power to change, to make things happen the way you want? Even if you can’t make a difference, you’d like to fight back?”
It felt as if a weight had been lifted off of Cecily’s chest and her whole face relaxed. “Yes, that’s exactly it. Right now it’s as if I’m just waiting for Mum to die.” The hard word shocked her, but came out anyway.
Gracia began to pace, and Cecily heard a grim chuckle. “Contrary to popular opinion, I am not a strange worker of miracles. I do not inexplicably heal the sick or have the ability to answer all the great questions of the world. Some people think that I could smite their cattle with a word if they displeased me. To tell the truth, I am just one of many.” She came back to Cecily. “And something tells me that you and I are not much different.”
“Me? I know about some herbs and medicines, but you’re the best healer in Whitcrowe.”
“I’m not talking about healing. I’m talking about the power to take action. The power to make your thoughts into reality. Have you heard of power? Not the power of sword or scepter, but the power of the mind and spirit, a power that comes from inside a person whether she be born high or low.”
Cecily’s mind went back to the hearthside where Alis had once told her about something like this, a sort of extra-ordinary strength that a few people possessed. It was something like the wishing and cursing of Old Tales—only real.
“Some people are special, Cessy. People like me, people like you.”
Her mum had said that this power was granted to certain people, and unless you had it you couldn’t tell who had it and who didn’t. Cecily had wondered for weeks afterward if she was one of those people, but had gradually forgotten about it amongst the clutter of the everyday.
“How do you know I have power?”
“Never you mind. I’ve known it since you were young. You’ll know it yourself one day. The fact is that you and I have power, power that most folk can only imagine. It’s power that has the energy to do great things, make things happen that would not happen otherwise. You understand? It makes us able to take the world into our own hands, in big and little ways.”
Cecily’s voice interrupted, quick but unsure, “You know what Mum would say. She always says to wait on God. He will make everything right.”
“You mother’s a good woman, Cessy, and I won’t hear anyone say different, but…. I’m not a God-fearer.”
It was true, Cecily had seldom seen Gracia at chapel unless it was a holy day. She had always heard that this was because her work interfered with services.
“Some here in this village would kill me for that, if they knew all. But your mother’s not one of them. She knows just about everything there is to know about me.” Gracia stopped as if suddenly cautious. She wrapped her cloak tighter around herself and rocked back and forth on her feet. The night, which had before seemed only cold and wet, now felt distinctly unfriendly. Cecily imagined hostile fingers stretching toward them out of the darkness.
For the first time, Cecily saw Gracia as someone separate from Bess and Milo and jammy biscuits. She was dressed in the ordinary way, really no different than any other cottager, but there was something masterful about her; she seemed eminently controlled. Gracia might have been a lowly servant, but she was a servant who knew what she wanted—who had courage and purpose. Every drape of her dress was deliberate. The crude bracelet of wooden beads that she always wore on her left wrist suddenly struck Cecily as being a defiant symbol: a mark of insolence and rebellion against a world that would deny her the dignity of her power.
“Ever wanted something that you knew you couldn’t have, no matter what you did? Something totally impossible, out of your control?”
The thought of Jevan Auvray—the arrogant dandy who had scorned her, and the man who had hunted her down for a conversation—came to Cecily’s mind, reluctant as she would have been to admit it. He was someone who had everything she wanted, and who might as well live on the other side of the sea for all the good it would do her.
“I’ve loved Lander as long as I can remember. Many years ago (merciful mother, more years than I like to count), another woman was going to marry him. She was younger and more beautiful than me; better family, more money. There was no reason for Lander to choose me over her.” Her voice hardened in the darkness. “Some would say it was a miracle I married him. Providence. An act of God. It wasn’t.” Cecily felt like backing away from her, putting some distance between herself and that unfamiliar voice. “I did something that most girls would cringe at, and it would probably turn the whole county against me if everyone knew…but I got him.”
Gracia’s voice lost some of its edge. “It’s an amazing thing: the power to change people’s minds, their hearts, everything. You take the world into your own hands.”
“Why do people never talk about this?”
“What, are you afraid it’s wrong? Evil?” The drizzle had finally stopped and a cloud swept away to reveal a watery moon. Cecily could see Gracia’s face now, thick eyebrows and hard lines around the mouth highlighted in black and gray. “There are people out there who’ll tell you that this is wrong, Cessy, immoral. They say that men were not meant to have this kind of power, that we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, that we are helpless pawns and can’t expect to ever be anything. Never listen to them. Never give in to them.”
Cecily couldn’t help but feel frightened at Gracia’s intensity, but at the same time she was thrilled. Who had ever spoken like that to her? Spoken like she was an adult and could understand? Spoken like she had the capacity to know the truth in its naked, unaltered state?
Gracia backed away. “Some people go their entire lives without ever knowing, never guessing that there is such a thing within them. So many of them are afraid to use their power. For one reason or another they give it away. Some to God, or to people. And people will always let you down.”
“What about God?”
A grin split Gracia’s face. “You are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you? Well, you might not want to hear this, but I stopped believing in a God when I married Lander. I got away with it, see, with what I did. Since then I’ve not been able to believe in a master or creator or whatever you call him. Sounds strange, I daresay, but there it is.” She turned away from the tree and faced her cottage, not moving toward it but simply drinking in the candlelight that flickered through cracks in the door. “I keep my thoughts on that subject to myself, and I’d thank you to do the same, Cessy. I tell you this because I think you’re old enough to make your own choices.
“You have to decide if your power is given to you by God, or if it’s a tool for choosing your own fate.” She pointed a passionate finger in Cecily’s face. “Pray until you’re blue in the face and you may never get an answer. Learn to bend this inner power to your will, and things will begin to happen. This power doesn’t go out with use. It only grows. It’s grown on me these many years.”
“Is it worth it?” Cecily had blurted it out, hardly knowing what she said, but waited breathless for an answer.
“That’s an odd question, lass. But the truth is, if you know what you want, isn’t it worth anything to get it? I’ve never regretted what I’ve done. I’ve always known that a life without regret is better than a life without sin.” Gracia’s head tilted toward the sky where a few stars were twinkling, winking as if they knew a secret denied to the world.
“You’re a bit scared, aren’t you, Cessy? Don’t be. It’s all a part of learning. You must learn what kind of potential is in yourself and it’s not something many will teach you.” She put her warm hand on Cecily’s arm and gave a comforting squeeze. “You won’t need to come to me for help any more—anything is possible if you will but believe it to be so. Spend some time believing, Cessy. Cultivate that power. It will give you strength when the time of testing comes.”
Cecily was perfectly still, until the sound of muffled voices drifting from the cottage made her realize how late it was getting. “Thank you. Thank you for telling me this. I’ll—I’ll have to think.”
Gracia smiled, passed her hand over Cecily’s forehead as if to smooth away the creases, then moved soundlessly toward her home.
Cecily already felt different—lighter and heavier at the same time. She had gotten what she came for, answers, but answers usually come accompanied by questions. Sometimes more questions than there were before. What could Gracia have possibly done to marry Lander? Would I be willing to do it for Mum? For Master Auvray? A life without regret…power to control your destiny. It all sounded a bit grand for a cotter girl standing in the mud on a dreary night in early spring, but it was better than kneeling in church with nothing but silence to answer a crying heart.