Ragnhild turned her face to the wall. The mewling baby hidden deep in the bedclothes rooted for her leaking breast, and Ragnhild groaned as she adjusted herself to his searching mouth. She closed her eyes, succumbing to the sensation, life being drawn from her, draining away.
Trygve pulled back the curtains on the bed closet.
“Ragnhild. I am hungry.”
“There is bread and cheese,” Ragnhild murmured without turning her head.
Trygve said nothing, but contemplated the dark morose mass that was his wife, listening to the moist, soft sounds of his child taking nourishment. He dropped the curtain.
Bread and cheese again? I’m a working man. Trygve shook his head. How long has it been since the baby came? The births of the other children hadn’t caused this broodiness or avoidance of duties.
Trygve made sure the children were occupied, playing a game on the hearth, before striding out into the inky gloom. The northern lights flashed tantalizingly once, then dissolved into colourless filminess. Few stars pinpricked the velvety sky, as foreboding and dismal as Trygve’s soul, as he revisited in his mind the silent sullenness of his wife.
He shuffled through the snow to the woodshed and filled the handcart with split pine to take back to the house. Its sharp fragrance comforted him, reminding him of wood oil, incense, and... church.
Perhaps, that was the answer.
He’d speak to the priest...
“Ragnhild, you must get up.”
“It is time for you to be churched. Forty days have passed since the baby was born. You’re not unclean anymore. The priest says you may come back to church for Holy Communion now.”
A tear stung Ragnhild’s cheek, then slipped onto the downy head of the baby nestled under her chin.
“Ragnhild, did you hear?”
Ragnhild nodded, barely perceptible, but Trygve saw. And smiled.
Sunday morning was clear, although the late winter sun had not yet risen. With clumsy fingers, Trygve helped the children dress, while the children watched their mother with surprised eyes. Ragnhild was pale and weak, but steady. She’d bathed the night before, rinsing out her stringy hair with herb-scented snow water, now twisting the shining mass into arranged braids.
The trek along the fjord was treacherous in the grey dawn, a new layer of snow covering the narrow, icy path, making footing dangerous. Trygve carried the smallest child, Ragnhild, the baby, and the rest walked single file, warily and watchfully. The stave church loomed into view, and the little family walked through the churchyard, each gravestone capped by a fresh crown of white.
The familiar scents welcomed Ragnhild, candles, incense, ancient wood, and warm bodies. A few people turned to see who’d entered the church and smiled to see Ragnhild and the bundle she carried. Ragnhild smiled shyly in return, then wondered why. These were her friends. She’d nothing to be shy about. Trygve led them to their usual standing place.
The priest climbed the stairs to his lectern and began reading the lessons. Carefully and slowly, he read through the Old Testament reading and the Psalm, then the Gospel reading. Ragnhild let the words wash over her. How long had it been? She didn’t notice the snow on her skirt had melted, soddening her skirt, numbing her feet. Her arms throbbed from holding the baby, and her breasts ached with the need to feed the child. Yet, Ragnhild’s spirit was more ravenous, and the infant slept on.
The moment came for Holy Communion to be served. Ragnhild went forward and received the bread, and as the chalice was put to her lips, she once again felt fellowship with her Saviour, her church family. She gloried in the coming together of the saints, the mystery of the Great Remembrance.
In a blaze of brilliance, the sun shone through the tiny priest’s window, warming Ragnhild’s face and heart, breaking the final shards of hardness that had kept her captive for the last weeks. Winter’s darkness, fatigue, and her own fierce stubbornness had kept her buried in the bed closet, cloistered with the baby.
Afterwards, the women gathered around Ragnhild in the churchyard, eager to look at the new babe. One had a pot of hearty fårikål, having been told that Ragnhild would be at church. Another had a barley loaf wrapped in a linen cloth. Others promised to stop by with cheese, custard, or jam.
Ragnhild had been churched.
And church was good.
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