He has mown the grass around the gravestones, tended the small kitchen garden where he grows runner beans, shallots, and carrots, tightened the string ties across the beds to keep away the gulls and crows. And all with the use of only one arm. He hardly speaks to a soul, and he has no name. He has been here for thirty years as a caretaker, but no-one remembers how he came to be here or from where he arrived. The church congregation and the current minister are used to him and his quiet ways – this man who speaks to no-one. On summer evenings, he can be found seated in a rocking chair on the narrow veranda at the back of the presbytery. He seems to be staring into the air, perhaps watching the blue butterflies that dance around the flowering gorse until they disappear into the dusk. This evening is no different – except that there is a storm brewing out to sea. Dark clouds are gathering on the horizon, moving closer to shore. The ocean waters are rising, rolling along the surface, waves folding in tight curls as if they are held by their tethers.
On 12 August 1944, the inhabitants of the island of Sarsenne were aroused from their slumbers. The distant firing of guns on the mainland had hardly impinged on their lives during the last couple of months; the sound merely carried on the wind, diluted into a low boom like an irregular heartbeat. It was four in the morning when the home guards came, calling from house to house, advising everyone to evacuate the island: the enemy had been seen; vessels of war were speeding towards the shore. There was no time to ponder over which items to take or leave behind. Parents woke their children, lifting them from their beds still tangled in blankets. They pulled out suitcases that had long lain gathering dust on the tops of wardrobes and stuffed them with whatever came to hand. Anything they could not take that they considered to be valuable was hidden away or buried in their gardens. These mounds of freshly dug soil would later be kicked over and their treasures looted. Cats and dogs were fed; poultry and cattle were turned out of their stalls and left to the mercy of the invaders.
A young priest, Fr. Petrus, knelt in front of his altar at the church of St Agnes and prayed. He was the most recent incumbent in a long line of priests most of whom had stayed in post until their dying day. For generations, the church had been a source of comfort and courage to the inhabitants and, in return for spiritual protection, had grown wealthy. After all, the livelihoods of the Islanders came from the rich pickings of the sea. They believed that it was through the intercession of the priest that the seas around them continued to be replenished.
The church community had gathered on the previous evening to prepare for the next day’s special service. They had brought flowers, baskets burgeoning with fruit, and boxes of produce overlaid with fresh herbs: rosemary, sage, chamomile. The priest sighed, took a nervous breath and said a prayer to St Agnes. He knew that she would have stayed and faced the enemy as once she had thwarted the Lions of Rome and the burning flames of the witch’s fire. Father Petrus prayed for strength. In return, he promised the saint that he would return.
The reliquary casket had seldom been opened; in fact, never to the knowledge of Father Petrus. Now, here he was, pushing the filigreed key into the lock, his hands shaking, maundering more prayers. It was if the saint herself was at his side; the key slipped easily into the lock. He turned it anti-clockwise until he heard the clunk. With the casket open, the scent of incense wafted out, and Fr. Petrus reached into the velvet lining to find the box with the relic. It was a plain box, considering it was housed in a silver and gold casket, with a simple cross carved into the lid. This relic was believed to be a single bone; a phalanx, from the finger of St Agnes. It had been on the island since 1461 when the boat in which the relic was being transported foundered on the rocks at low tide. The priests who were responsible for its transportation swam to the shore with the relic wrapped and sealed inside the box. A casket was later commissioned and paid for by the Islanders. With the relic safely and luxuriously housed, it had been installed before the altar of a side chapel designated to St Agnes. Now the relic would be taken on another journey.
Fr. Petrus slipped the key into his pocket and made his way to the door, turning just once to genuflect before walking down to the pier, the wooden box under his arm. Father Petrus left on the final boat. As he watched the harbour shrinking into the distance and the island flag twisting around its pole, he prayed to St Agnes and begged for her intercession. In return, he promised that he would take care of the last of her mortal remains and to restore it to its rightful resting place, if only his life could be spared. But his prayer was caught by the wind and tossed across the ocean.
A great storm brewed and the boat pitched from side to side, lifted by the swell, pulled back and forth until it filled with the spume of the overlapping waves. All hands were on deck, every bailer to hand. As soon as the hull emptied, it quickly refilled until eventually it was barely afloat. The boat had become separated from the convoy, and limped along with the pull of the tide, sinking further and further, until the captain gave the orders to release the lifeboats and abandon ship.
By now they were into enemy waters nearer the mainland but the outgoing tide was pulling them back towards Sarsenne. It would do them no good to send up the flares. The reputation of the enemy, with its vile punishments, threatened a fate worse than drowning. They would take their chances. The mercy of the cold sea was preferable to the embrace of a vicious enemy. The women and children were ushered into the lifeboats and the crew swung themselves in after them, calling to Fr. Petrus to do the same. But the boat pitched and creaked, and the lifeboats quickly drifted away. Fr. Petrus took hold of a lifebelt and pushed it around the wooden chest. He threw it into the wild water before launching himself overboard. It was only a few seconds later when the boat upended, heading down and down.
The priest surfaced, gulping in the air as he came up and plunged down only to rise again. Once he had gained enough breath, he cried out for help, but no helping hand, no guardian angel, came to pluck him from the sea. Instead, the wooden chest hooped by the lifebelt appeared in front of him. He flung himself at the chest, and, determined not to lose it, he pushed one arm between it and the lifebelt and felt the pressure squeezing him like a tourniquet. There he remained on the surface of the sea, a human rudder to a small wooden chest.
But the sea was filling with flotsam rising from the sinking boat. A body floated by, the head uppermost, long hair swirling like the tentacles of a strange sea creature. He watched, mesmerised until he almost forgot his predicament. The sails of the boat sprung to the surface and then the shaft of the mast came up from behind him. A sudden wave dashed it against his head throwing him into darkness and sending him down towards the seabed.
Fr. Petrus felt waves crashing onto shingle and pounding at the rawness of his body. He saw his arm, blue and stiff, still anchored to the wooden box. All was dark. Then there came the sound of crushing, footsteps moving towards him. Through his blinkered vision, he saw a pair of feet, and heard a child’s voice or was it a woman’s voice – or an angel’s? He tried to look up, but the light was blinding. He could not make out what or who it was, and then he realised. Only a halo could be this bright, the halo of a saint. He thought she smiled as she bent towards him. He felt nothing as the box was pulled free of the life belt. The vision was disappearing now, moving away, the bright light diminishing, and all he felt was the spray of small stones from the running heels. He shivered violently and passed into oblivion.
The caretaker genuflects in front of the altar. He will tidy away the hymnals and missals now that evensong has passed and all is quiet. He is alone and he lingers for a moment. From somewhere behind him is the thwack of a dropping latch. The chime of iron on iron has his heart lurching. He lifts his head and turns to look towards the door. The ring handle is turning, closing, and before him on the altar a corner of embroidered cloth lifts in the slight draught. Right in the centre of the altar, is a small wooden chest. He is sure that it was not there before. He arises, awkwardly, then moves towards it, fearfully, arms held wide as if to tame a wild animal.
He feels the sides of the box; rough and swollen, damp, as if it has come from the waters. Firmly closed, he cannot prise it open. Instead, his lips move as his fingers draw over the letters of the embossed name: Agnes. He lifts up the box and carefully takes it with him to the vestry. He remembers there is a small key kept in the corner cabinet. As he enters, through the latticed window, he notices the swinging chain of the gate.
He pushes the ornate key into the lock and, despite the grit and salt, it turns. Inside is a small bundle, a cloth wrapped tightly around it like a tiny Egyptian mummy, bleached and faded. The lights flicker momentarily as a crash of thunder reaches the coast. Grains of sand spill out as he pulls away at the rotten layers, unwinding the cloth until the contents are revealed – a tiny piece of bone. The phalanx of a saint. St Agnes has returned. Now he, Fr. Petrus, will return to the island of Sarsenne – with the last fragment of her mortal self.
Alison Lock’s poetry and short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She has published a short story collection, two poetry collections, and a fantasy novella. She has an MA in Literature Studies and Creative Writing. She is a tutor for Transformative Life Writing courses. www.alisonlock.com