OLU – IT WAS WHAT she would call her after all – held her hand again but it wasn’t as it had been: Nell felt like a child beside her. She was the weaker one now, the vulnerable one – perhaps she always had been.
‘Sometimes my powers come when you least expect,’ said Olu, ‘when you’d rather they stayed away. Other times they let you down. But they are never gone for good. What I show you tonight will be with you always. Do you still wish to learn?’
‘Without doubt,’ said Nell, though she felt less sure, and her free hand trembled.
‘Then come.’ They travelled high above the parkland, higher than where Sir George’s colliers would soon be working his pits, crawling out like mice when their labours were done, hardly knowing night from day, as he’d said himself, not with pity but with pride and disdain. Nell felt like one of them, a blind mouse of a miner drawn from the better sort of people. Her status seemed meaningless now, as useless as jewels in a land where jewels had no value, where all was held in common.
They came presently to the open moor, gullied and cragged and heather-bogged. The wind was strong; the moon lit them like characters in a Bible tale. Nell was Lot fleeing the city of Sodom, glancing back tempted beyond endurance, but on pain of being salted by a vengeful deity, a God ever watchful in his wrath, the cause of the moon’s exceeding light, which made her feel so small. But if Nell was Lot, who or what was Olu? The higher ground would make it easier, she said, urging Nell along in the chilly air. There were hollows to be found, depressions in the earth that would shield them as they made their pledge – Olu’s anew, Nell’s as a novice in the ways of obeah. The word was African, Olu said, but there was nothing in words. It was deeds that mattered, not the labels people gave them.
Nell could make nothing of the pledge itself, a mere kissing of the raw earth where ravens shed their feathers when rocked by the winds, where sheep and conies emptied their bowels of the flimsy moorland fare. The smell of the heather was earthy strong – like the grave, Olu said, when body and soil were one. ‘This will do well. It is old ground, before the time of man.’ She meant the moor itself, the highest point for miles around, an open space where nature and the elements met human flesh, fusing in the process a new kind of life in the space between. In that same space was a half life that they might with patience rekindle. It was waiting to be woken, for death was just slumber, said Olu.
‘Are there no gods to be appeased?’ Nell asked, as they lay in the chosen hollow where wind boomed overhead like cannon.
‘I prefer the word spirits.’
‘And zombies?’ said Nell. ‘A zombie is a thing? – a person?’
‘And a place. All places where the elements are free to roam. There is a zombie of the river, zombie of the wood and glade. Zombie of the earth and fire. Zombie of the hills and moors. She’s the one we seek.’
‘She is female then?’ and Nell watched her gather clumps of bracken and ling, moorland flowers whose shades were dim in the darkness; coarse grass and jagged pebbles, feathers, stalks, twigs, anything she could lay her hands on. Her hands moved quickly and deftly, indistinguishable from the night save for the things they held. And when a grouse she’d disturbed whirred off in startled flight Nell half expected her to snatch it from the air.
‘We must use what is here, nothing more, nothing less. We give of the earth and we give of ourselves. The spirits ask for nothing else. Here – take it and offer it.’ Her hand guided Nell’s into a warm damp hole. It was like feeling inside the living body of the earth. ‘In there will do, it is all that is to hand. And in your hand is all there is to give. Other than your soul. I have already given mine.’
‘Reverend Mortimer says you don’t have one,’ Nell said, fearful of insects, lizards, snakes, all that hissed and turned a sweet dream bad. But she hadn’t had a sweet dream for weeks, and her hair was turning white at the nape of her neck.
‘I know what he says. It amounts to little. And soon we will do with him as you wish.’
‘As you wish too,’ Nell said quickly, needing her complicity like an infant needs its mother’s milk. The milk she’d never had.
There was scarcely enough room for both their hands but Olu held Nell’s fast till the offering was made. ‘Is that all?’ Nell asked when it was done. It was pure bravado, for the feel of that dank dark hole was indescribably chilling. She felt no heart beat, no pulse anywhere on her body. It was as if she were already dead.
‘It feels like you are dead, yes? Then it’s time to confront your fear.’
‘Up here on the moor?’ Nell asked.
‘No, at your momma’s grave.’
‘But it’s all so white like bone, like the milk she never gave me because Father fetched a wet nurse.’
‘It’s only marble from Italy.’
‘But it frightens me, that and the shape it makes and the terror of going inside. No one ever does, except Father. But not lately, and strangely not since his return …’
But she was already walking ahead on her unshod feet and Nell was forced to follow.
Soon they’d descended the moor and left it behind them, reached the dew-damp lawns of the Cooper estate. An owl hooted in one of the taller oaks, answered by his mate in the copse nearby. At the sight of the columns that fronted the mausoleum Nell paused, unable to go on. She glanced at the tall heavy door, not locked or barred, just solemn and still. Beyond was the vault which housed her mother’s remains, her little sister’s and brother’s; which awaited her father’s, Joe’s, and hers too she supposed.
‘Death isn’t final, Nell,’ said Olu. ‘Your momma just sleep.’
If only she could believe it, that propitiation – of what? – upon the moor had led to this – again, what? Would there be any flesh? she wondered, any hair, any trace of the smallpox which killed her?
‘Go on,’ said Olu, ‘all will be well.’
Nell pushed at the door which gave under pressure. The small stones trapped beneath screeched as it jarred open, the sound echoing in the cavernous darkness; a darkness that lessened as the door opened wider and the shadows raced to the corners of the room. Through the glass-panelled roof moonlight reached the marble-tiled floor. Lady Cooper’s vault was slotted into the wall ahead, marked by an angel’s face and curling inscription in mingled English and Latin. But Nell had come for more, for high talk with the dead. ‘Where are the spirits? – where is the next world?’ she asked. ‘This is so –ordinary.’
‘You are here and your fear is gone, let that be enough.’ Olu led her nearer the vault, its stone flush with the white surround, ever more remote and inaccessible. The two smaller vaults beneath were out of focus as Nell stared; it was her mother’s alone that she wanted.
‘Do you not feel her in your heart?’ said Olu.
‘Yes, but where is her ghost? – it’s her ghost I’m here to see.’ If only she could believe further, that death wasn’t final, that we met our loved ones for certain at life’s end, met them earlier if we grieved enough. But this was too real, too pitifully real, preternaturally normal in the dreary here and now.
And yet Olu was right: there was magic of sorts in knowing that your fear was gone. For that alone Nell was grateful, and she knew who to thank.
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