“I’m taking the afternoon off, Bradley.”
My pronouncement sounded loudly in the Haversham Library, and my boss, Bradley Weller, eyed me with suspicion. It was not my habit to take time off. Even when mother had died I’d been back to work the next day, dusting library books and entering inventory into our ancient computer system.
“Why?” he demanded.
“There’s a holy relic on display at St. Philomena’s.”
His expression sharpened and he rubbed his fingers under his nose. “What kind of relic?”
“It’s a piece of Mary Magdalene’s bone.”
I was taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to me that one piece of saint bone might have more value than another. “I think it’s a shin bone.” I said.
He looked disappointed and I felt perversely determined to impress him as I continued. “It’s gold-plated.”
His expression brightened. “Gold, well, that’s more like it then. Just make sure you finish the inventory before you go.” He walked back to his office and I looked after him and sighed.
When my husband, William, was killed in an auto crash, I spent months quietly grieving in our cold Oxford home. People dropped by from time-to-time, old friends and relatives, offering well-meaning but essentially useless advice. I decided the only way to get over my past was to start afresh, so I sold our home and took up residency in a small cottage in Haversham.
Change, if it came at all, came imperceptibly to Haversham, and the collection of decaying gentlefolk went about their worldly pursuits of television, afternoon tea, and mild gardening as they’d always done. I fell into the quiet rhythm of the village and took a job at the local library as I prepared to measure out my life with coffee spoons. The only thing to mar the complacent domesticity of my days was the presence of my boss.
Bradley Weller was a thick-set man in his early forties with narrow eyes, a tiny button nose, and a diminutive brown mustache. During our interview told me he was writing four books simultaneously: two science fictions, a thriller, and a biography of Colin Firth. I assured him I was ready to take up my new duties immediately so he could focus on his literary career, and although I’d never actually worked as a junior librarian I’d frequently imagined what it might be like. I assumed this would appease someone with enough imagination to keep four books in production at once, but he merely snorted and said that I’d “do for the job.”
Thus began my career as a junior librarian.
I reasoned the work would provide me the same dull pleasure as most things in my quiet world, but since Bradley had no intention of doing any actual “work” my job duties swiftly mounted. I’d just slogged through the morning labeling and barely had time for my cup of tea when Bradley came and informed me I would have to man both the front desk and the Information Center until I left for the day.
The Information Center was a small desk near the front of the library with just enough space for a book and a computer. It was difficult to be in two places at once, but the center provided an excellent place to sit and observe people, which was the reason I started working at the library in the first place.
The library, along with the post office, was one of the liveliest social hubs of the village. Although I’d lived in Haversham for five years, I was still considered a newcomer and as such didn’t invite many confidences. But I soon discovered that I was a benefactor of most important village gossip via Bradley, and in order to facilitate my fact-finding had acquired the art of self-effacement, disappearing into the background of a brightly colored “Let’s Read Together” poster or fading into a gray stack of Classics of the Western World. I felt more like the former today as I was wearing my new blue sweater and camel-colored skirt, and thought I could almost blend into the Travel section or even New Releases (Domestic, of course).
I watched Lottie Dunn trot up to the front desk and went over to assist her. Lottie was a bulky woman with thin, graying hair tortuously curled into corkscrews, and large, unblinking brown eyes. I noticed the front of her cardigan was fastened with a safety pin and thought she gave the impression that her whole body was held together by safety pins with her bobbing gait and wispy fly-away hair. Today she looked even more flustered than usual as she informed me she had no time for the latest bestseller.
“Have you been to see the bone?” she demanded.
I shook my head. “I’m going this afternoon. Have you seen it?”
She nodded importantly and leaned towards me. “Be sure to keep your coat on. The heater at St. Phil’s is broken again. And don’t let anyone rush you. You have just as much right to see it as the next person, and that’s exactly what I told Mrs. Greeley when she would keep crowding my elbow.”
I thanked her and watched as she swept away. I’d just discovered a new esoteric field, Holy Relic Etiquette, and wondered if there was enough material for a paper for the Library Conversation Series: “Relic-quette: Some Problems of Viewing a Saint’s Bone.”
Bradley’s shout disturbed me from my thoughts and he came rushing from his office with a stack of papers.
“I’ve just been going through our invoices and this says we pre-ordered ten copies of the new Carter Davis thriller.”
I nodded. “Yes, they’re always very popular.”
“Ten copies?” he demanded, as if my order was on par with the worst excesses of the French aristocracy.
“The customers complain if they have to wait for a copy,” I said.
He sighed and assumed what I privately called his martyred nun expression. “You know we’re on a strict operating budget, Madeline. In the future five copies will be sufficient.”
He returned to his office and I felt another tinge of annoyance. I was the one who’d deal with the frustration of being denied a Carter Davis thriller, even for a few days. There was always a cache of having a new book and the villagers would often incur heavy fines rather than part with them.
I finished at the Information Center and collected my gloves and bag. The day was dreary and overcast and I pulled my coat across my chest as I stepped onto the sidewalk. The Lenten season was such a gray time, with its fish Fridays and piety, self-reflection and self-denial. William had died this time of year, so I thought giving up tea or chocolate would be small change considering that loss. Then I remembered the early Christian martyrs who’d been killed, and even tortured, for their faith and felt ashamed.
St. Philomena’s or “St. Phil’s” as the villagers called it was at the opposite end of the village, and I hurried along trying to avoid the pot holes that erupted every winter in the streets of Haversham.
Inside the church was dark and cold. Here was none of the papal majesty of Rome, just a small, rather cave-like space lit with numerous candles and heavy with incense. There was a long queue of parishioners already waiting and I gave a mental sigh and folded my hands. It would be a long wait but I was accustomed to waiting. I’d waited seven long years for William to propose to me. And then he’d been killed three months into our marriage.
“Is that a dinosaur bone, mummy?”
The bright young voice startled me from my thoughts, and the child’s mother quickly hushed him. I wondered at the propriety of bringing a child to such an exhibition, but judging from the mother’s harried expression thought it likely she hadn’t a moment to call her own, not even to see a holy relic. I saw her as the suppressed heroine of a story, A Bone of One’s Own, or To the Cathedral.
The line was moving again and I studied the Stations of the Cross, Via Crucis, as we went: Jesus falls the first time; Jesus meets his mother; all events leading to the cave. By the time I saw Jesus fall a third time I realized I was at the altar.
It was my turn.
I stepped forward to take my place before the bone, and as I did felt a spiritual jolt that caught me off guard; a hot flash of holiness so intense it almost brought me to my knees.
A miracle could happen here, I thought suddenly.
Here, amongst the grubby villagers of Haversham and the thick incense, here something amazing could occur; an appearance by Mary Magdalene, made flesh, or a sudden cure of a terminal disease, or even nagging doubts returned to faith. Could there ever be a “small” miracle? I stared down at the chunk of shinbone in its glass box. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been hoping for a miracle, and the fact that one could happen almost made up for the fact that it hadn’t.
There was a gentle nudge from behind me, and I stepped away and shook hands with the priest standing next to the box.
“I’m Father Bernard, Keeper of the Bone,” he announced proudly. “I keep it next to me at night.”
I had a sudden vision of him, curled up on a cot, quietly spooning the glass box. “Oh, yes,” I said. “I’m glad to hear it has such good protection.”
He nodded. “It’s usually kept in a mountain cave in France, but I felt compelled to bring it to England for a visit.”
He made the bone sound almost jaunty, and I pictured it cavorting gaily on a train from France, surrounded by other holy relics and colored travel brochures.
I said a quick prayer and left a donation in the collection box. As I stepped back outside I saw the sun had finally broken free of the iron-gray clouds and was radiant against the sky. The air, which had hung raw and heavy earlier in the day, had also lightened, and I remembered it was only two weeks until Easter.
The season of royal purple and gold; colored eggs and hot cross buns; resurrection and redemption. Maybe the bone had some power after all, because as I walked down the street I felt almost light-hearted, as if I’d left my sadness with it. I saw Bradley emerge from the library and step into a large pothole and as he was assisted out by a few helpful villagers I began to hum “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”
Love was in the air.