In the still of the afternoon, the church is quite empty. Bars of sunlight fall on the granite floor through the arched windows, staining it in patches of amber and rose. In the churchyard, the priest leads a group of visitors past the rows of tombstones. Marble seraphs pose solemn among the chrysanthemum and ivy. It is a hot day. A few shift uncomfortably in their black mourning; lace handkerchiefs are wrung in sweaty hands. Inside the deserted sanctum, a little girl is playing hopscotch. Hopping from one flagstone to another, clearing each pew, landing safely every time. Single step, double step, hold your breath and jump. She has made her own rules. Hop all the way up to the altar, with a vague knowledge that she must touch the altar rails immediately to win the game. Look up at the golden bars towering above her, and the twisted wooden form of the sad looking man behind it. Light surges in through the window on her left, creating rainbows at her feet. In a niche under the sill sits a lady, her blue gown glowing in the sunshine. Cradled in her arms is a little child who stares at the girl with large, wistful eyes.
The girl, flushed after her victory, does not notice. The voices outside move further away and she knows she is safe. Sitting down, she takes off first one shoe, peels off the clammy stocking underneath, and then the other follows. Stands up straight, barelegged, and turns towards the luminous window which seems to shine in disrespectful abandon. And then she sees him. The little child sitting on his mama’s lap, watching her every move.
“What are you doing there?” says the girl.
The child is astonished. She stands there looking at him, speaking to him, waiting for an answer. He feels he has to say something.
“I don’t know.”
She shakes her head impatiently. Of course. He is only a baby. Babies don’t know too much.
“Come down from there,” she says, “I’ll show you how to play. You might even win if you learn quick.”
The child looks doubtful. “Can I?”
“I said I’ll show you! Hurry up, my mama is outside but if she calls I’ll have to go.”
The child seems to remember something. The blue-cloaked woman sits unmoved; her hard hands hold him stiffly. The strange little girl stares at him, curious. Suddenly he knows he cannot climb down.
“I can’t. Please come closer.”
The girl obliges. She walks right up to the blue lady and climbs on to one of her knees. Making herself comfortable, she faces the child again and makes a proper introduction.
“My grandaunt died yesterday. She’s being buried right now. My papa and mama are outside. Papa said grandaunt had the lumbago for years and it’s a wonder she didn’t go sooner. What’s lumbago? Do you know? I’m in the first primer now and we do verbs, and tomorrow I mean to ask teacher what lumbago is.”
The child doesn’t say a word. He only listens. The girl fidgets in her seat, looks around the empty cathedral once more. Shadows sleep in the pews. Blackbirds come to roost on the wide casements from the nodding branches of the elm tree.
“Why don’t you come outside?” she finally demands.
The child doesn’t know why and can’t imagine why this never occurred to him. “Nobody ever asks me,” he finally says, “Why? What’s outside?”
“What’s outside?” says the girl, incredulous, “You silly little boy, everything’s outside! There’s a road, and a market down the road, and a clock high up in the sky, and a little schoolhouse for Sundays, and when the funny old man takes you down to the garden... haven’t you seen the garden?”
“What is it like? Tell me. Please.”
“Alright. Listen then.”
She went on, relishing the grown-up tang on the tip of her words. He listened, clear blue eyes growing wide and wondering. The feel of a dandelion. The motion of a tyre swing. The exact shade of the sky at high noon. Dim pictures of colour and light played in his mind and he listened hungrily to this strange new lullaby. In another world a hot afternoon wore on, ashes turned to ashes and dust to dust. When the girl finally heard the bells tolling, she started and slid off her seat. The child watched her pick up her stockings and put on her shoes.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to go look for my mama. But listen, I’ll come back. I haven’t finished telling about our cat yet, and she just had kittens too. Wait a bit. You can keep these.”
Out of her pocket she pulled a handful of wilted violet petals and heaped them carefully in his lap. Straightening her dress, she waved once, then ran back up the aisle, out of the heavy wooden doorway, and down into the churchyard. The people were beginning to file out in a black throng and soon she was lost among them. The child listened to the shuffling of their footsteps for a while, and when the silence returned he closed his eyes and fell again into a deep sleep. This time, he dreamed of fields of wild violets. He was very young. He did not know that one day she too would grow up and learn how to disbelieve.