Thomas Collyer had a lot on his mind. There was Sunday’s sermon to ponder. A baptism one week hence, a wedding in three days, and the midsummer’s fair in a fortnight. Most importantly, however, his beloved wife was labouring with their first child in the nearby vicarage.
“She’s coming along, Vicar.” Mrs. Blackburn had brought him a pot of tea and a plate of buttered scones earlier. “When it’s time, I’ll fetch you.”
Thomas ran anxious fingers through his hair until it stood straight up, and he nibbled at the scones, crumbs littering his vest. He tried to concentrate, but his thoughts were like feathers in the wind. Maybe a turn about the churchyard would relieve his mind.
The air was damp, mist wending through the headstones, dew lying heavy on the grass between the rows. A dreary day to be born, he thought. He glanced towards the vicarage, but it was silent and taciturn. He pulled his watch from his pocket; the hands hadn’t moved since the last time he’d looked.
Thomas strolled around the back of the church, observing that weeds had overgrown some of the older graves, mossy scabs capping the stones. A work bee was in order.
“Vicar, it’s best you come.” Mrs. Blackburn’s voice broke through Thomas’s reverie, and he looked up expectantly. The housekeeper was already plodding through the sodden grass, and Thomas followed the stooped shoulders.
The vicarage was hushed. Thomas felt a prickle of fear as he ascended the stairs, knowing, yet afraid to know for certain.
“You have a daughter, Vicar. Alyce is dying. I’m very sorry.”
Thomas did not hear. He was intent on the waxen face framed by damp curls. He tenderly touched Alyce’s cheek. Her eyes fluttered open and soundless words came from her bloodless lips. Thomas bent closer.
“Care for her. Love you.”
Thomas laid his head against her chilled hand.
“Help us to trust Thy loved ones to Thy care...” He felt her life ebb away. Help me.
Gentle mewling came from the cradle by the bed. Thomas lifted his head.
Help me, God.
The day of the funeral was sunny.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life... Hear our prayer.”
“And let our cry come unto Thee.”
On cue, tiny Elizabeth whimpered in Mrs. Blackburn’s arms. Thomas sprinkled soil onto the coffin as did the parishioners as their grieving vicar dismissed them. Several ladies tried to engage Thomas in conversations about wet nurses and mother care. Thomas walked on, deaf.
While Elizabeth slept, Thomas went through the layette, each item lovingly sewn, knitted, or crocheted by Alyce over the last few months. He examined each bootie, nightgown, and jacket, trying to understand the ties and buttons.
Later, while going through Alyce’s work basket, Thomas found her final project. It was an embroidered infant’s bonnet, tiny sprays of flowers on cotton, the embroidery incomplete, the brim and ties not yet attached. He’d give it to Mrs. Blackburn for completion.
Yet... Thomas held the bonnet to his cheek, trying to glean the lingering touch of his Alyce’s fingers. He thought about the small life sleeping in the cradle, blissfully unaware.
Clumsily, Thomas threaded the needle and knotted the thread. He pulled it through the cotton. Down again. One stitch. Up. Down again. Two stitches. A tear streaked down Thomas’s face and soaked into the pristine fabric. He didn’t know what to do. He searched through the basket for a guide. Nothing.
He continued the stitch he’d started. It was ungainly, not as graceful as Alyce’s stitches. He changed colours and tried another stitch. It didn’t work, not on the first attempt, not on the tenth, not after he marred the cloth with his blood. After several more tries, he managed a lopsided imitation of Alyce’s stitch, and he tried for another, faring better, although he snarled the thread twice. He determinedly made another.
Some of the stitches were beyond him, little buds of twisted thread. They’d have to wait until he had help.
Although she readily gave him guidance, it was a mystery to Mrs. Blackburn why the vicar finished the bonnet. It was greyed when it was completed several weeks later, and the bloodstain never entirely washed out.
To Thomas it was simple. Alyce had begun a work, and he’d finished it. Just as they’d begun a good work together in Elizabeth, and he’d complete it, too.
Help me, God.
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