God enters into two young girls’ lives without warning, in this vividly haunting story of religion and family dynamics.
The little girl caught the yellow butterfly in soft palms and gently curled her fingers around its wings like a cage. She resisted the urge to squeeze and instead ran over to her mother, who was knee deep into gardening, and released it in front of her.
Look! Look what I caught!
After a few moments the mother turned to look behind her, glimpsing little wings rapidly flapping away. She pushed a blonde curl behind her ear and grabbed her daughter’s wrist for a telling off. The little girl’s sweet face turned into a puzzled glaze before transforming again with a nod. Once freed by her mother, she turned back and ran into the high grass of the garden, playing again; looking to find more butterflies. From the shadows of an old pine tree, the grandmother looked on.
She held their hands tightly. She was old, but not too old; she still had a spring in her stiff step. Her feet scuffed the pavement and caused a continual dirt cloud to drift into the air. It followed them, settling on top of her long black coat, coating the hem in a dusting of grey. The fabric trailed behind the sheer power of her.
She looked around to check that they were the only ones out walking. Her fingers squeezed. Too tight, she realised, and allowed both of her thumbs to stroke softly against the back of her grandchildren’s hands in apology. She thought of the weeks which had led up to this moment, the planning and hiding and assurances of secrecy, and squeezed them again.
As they walked, a single hair untucked itself from behind her ear and flew into her face. She briefly let go of one child to push the grey lock back, and a now visible earring glistened as it attracted the morning light. The stained-glass windows from the looming cathedral, which later in the day would blacken from lack of sun, sprayed a mighty light show when the rays hit them, and her earring mimicked this perfectly. A cyclist glanced her way and was forced to squint.
The younger child focused on the road. She watched as the cars sped past her on their early morning commute, and noticed that a lot of them had frost covering the edges on their windshields. The ice twinkled prettily as they zoomed past. She hated her grandmother holding her this close and kept tensing her hand to test the old woman’s strength. There was no give. However, when her dress, which she had been forced to wear and which had been ironed weeks in advance, pushed to the back of her closet, blew up in the wind, she seized her chance. With a mighty tug she pulled herself away and with both hands held down the multitude of frills whose flying threatened to expose her.
Still distracted by her stray hair, the grandmother wasn’t looking as the little girl trundled toward the road to chase away the wind. She wasn’t looking as the little girl stood at the edge of the pavement and stuck out her foot, turning it in circles, playing. She wasn’t looking as the little girl’s shoe fell off, and only the older sister saw as she went into the traffic after it.
The abrupt screech of tires startled the little girl so much that she flopped over in the road, scuffing her knees on the tarmac. As soon as she had fallen, she was pulled right back up. A too-tight claw on upper arm, a too hard slap on her already weeping face. Her sister stood back in shock, still watching. The driver wound down their window and cursed, beeping aggressively on his comical car horn, only to cower when he saw the grandmother’s face. He drove off quickly.
The grandmother breathed in, and out, and ran her tongue over her teeth, feeling a slight cold on the one with a golden filling, and then returned to her age-old wisdom teeth right at the back.
She decided to treat this kindly.
It was not how she had treated her own children. In her time, kindness was not normal; instead, the done thing was a cane or the fear of God to shake obedience into those beneath you. She had even placed a cross above the bed of her daughter, hoping through sheer power of will that this would encourage belief to surge through her as she slept. Though now, she wondered whether the girl ever did much sleeping with a crucified Jesus hanging over her head.
Perhaps she regretted these practices and wondered whether she should, could have done better. Though in retrospect both her children were firecrackers and had exceeded even her own expectations tenfold. A tinge of green clouded these thoughts.
She tucked the girls under her arms, holding them close, and did not say a word. They continued to walk.
They entered the church. The grandmother dragged them towards the aisle, past the chalky statues whose dead eyes sent chills down their spines. The morning light had dwindled and the stained glass didn’t display its spectacular array of colours; instead, it sent out a calm yellow heat. The haphazard tiles were mismatched and dipped from wear, so the group were cautious with where they stepped.
Echoes followed them as they walked into the heart of the cavernous space, and while the girls were unsure at what entering into such a space meant, they found that it wasn’t suffocating; it was magnificent, with an otherness radiating from everywhere. The grandmother released the girls’ hands, allowing them to look around at the beauty of the Cathedral which they had only ever seen from the outside, while she walked straight towards the altar and greeted the awaiting Priest.
Feet stuck to stone floors; the eldest girl had no choice but to surrender. Lying down in the centre of the aisle, she better saw all there was to see and breathed a sigh of relief. Her sister lay at her side to see what she saw. They both blinked slowly.
They looked up at a lifetime.
They were submerged in water. From underneath, the light reflected onto the surface and so it was as if they looked up through glass. Time extended and although they were not in the pool together, they were.
The eldest went in first, dunked in quickly and with little time to struggle. Once under, she hesitated, dwelling in the silence that the water provided. It muffled the sound of her grandmother’s tears, which seeped steadily down her face hiding her smile, while the younger girl hopped in place at the edge: she watched the murky outline of her sister from above, thinking about how her hair dispersed around her like a dark net swirling to catch a fish. She herself had absolutely no interest in getting wet. Her sister was towel dried at the edge of the pool; white dress clean but stuck to her thin form, and she looked down at her own dress with its dirt stains, crossing her arms resolutely. Her grandmother stared her down.
She could feel the cuts on her knees and her cheek radiated warmth.
She walked slowly, reproachfully, toward the pool’s edge. The water rushed in under her dress and ballooned her skirts to the surface. She slipped her fingers into the water and touched the wet material, glossy under liquid holiness.
Unprovoked, a large force pushed at the back of her head and caused her to fall forward, face first into the pool. Her body collapsed beneath her and splashed water out onto the stone surroundings; all elements at the mercy of the controlled force that was His hand.
They walked, hand in hand, in front of the old lady. Then they skipped, almost racing in rhythm. They weren’t wearing their dresses anymore, brutally sodden as they were. Now, one was dressed in dungarees and the other had donned purple leggings.
They reached the pink door of their family home and knocked aggressively, not waiting for their grandmother. The door was opened by their father, who looked on at his daughters and trailing mother with an open, kind, compassionate, face. He paused, noting their state of clothing, and asked: Where did you go?
We went swimming, they replied.
About Suzannah Ball
Suzannah Ball is a Literary Assistant at a leading talent agency. Previously, Suzannah worked as a receptionist for Aitken Alexander Associates and in her spare time has written theatre reviews for the online magazine A Younger Theatre. She graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2018 after studying English and Philosophy and during her time there she worked as an Arts Editor for the university newspaper, The Founder. She currently lives in London. Follow Suzannah on Twitter @BallSuzannah
Feature image from ‘Notre Dame’ by Elodie Barnes.