We came to a broad track, wide and verdant in the green light of the shifting leaves overhead. Two chalky white lines had been worn into the grass, one on either side, and at the edges were white daisies and young elderflowers and Queen Anne’s Lace. The sweetness of honeysuckle covered the rude scent of the hawthorn, while delicate nettles told pretty lies about their stings. Sunlight filtered down through tall trees like blessings raining down upon our shoulders. For it was a pilgrimage, and we were thrice blessed. Once with our leader, once with our health, and once … I forget the last one. I stepped lightly onto the road. The grass was springy underfoot.
We had been travelling for a long time. I had lost track of the passage of days and hours but I could feel them in my body; the weariness of muscles, the looseness of my joints. My shoulders were warm and speckled with brown. There was a trickle of sweat in the small of my back. My companions seemed relieved to enter the coolness under the trees. They perked up a little, like plants that are watered, and began to talk and laugh. Our leader remained silent. He could not hear earthly sounds, only the voice of God.
After a mile or so, we paused, and sat on the road and gathered together. Here, the path had been worn down further so that the verges rose high about our shoulders, and we felt as if we had entered a green tunnel with rounded sides. We refreshed ourselves with water and our cantor asked us the questions.
‘Who are you?’
‘We are pilgrims’
‘Are you blessed?’
‘We are thrice blessed’
‘What is the first blessing?’
‘What is the second blessing?’
‘What is the third blessing?’
I remained silent, listening for my companions’ answers. I could not for the life of me remember.
That was it. Our third blessing was wherever we were going. I would remember next time. We were taking turns now in a circle, questioning our companions. My neighbour was the young man with the red hair and the green eyes. Green? Now I looked at them they were hazel, with gold flecks. Maybe a thin band of grey blue around the edge, like the grey blue stripe around the yolk of a hard-boiled egg.
‘What is my name?’
I hesitated. I knew this. Something brown and warm, like his eyes.
‘Yes, my name is Hazel. And what is yours?’
‘My name is … my name is … ‘
I had forgotten.
Hazel gave me a heartbeat to consider, and then another. He seemed to have my name in his head and to be thinking it at me as loudly as he could, but to no avail. Eventually, he sat back on his heals and announced it to the rest of the company.
‘Eadith has forgotten.’
There was an intake of breath, and an anxious stirring amongst us like wind in the trees. Our leader came over and took my face in his hands, turning it this way and that as if checking for damage. Eventually, with a gentle touch, he stroked my hair back into place and moved away. He signed to the company:
‘It is true. We are getting close now. Hazel, you may take her to safety and then return to us.’
Then they were bidding me farewell, with sighs and some with tears, but behind it all, an edge of excitement that I could not understand. I was confused and bereft. No longer blessed.
It was a long and weary way back along that path. Hazel stayed close but I could see the glances he took over his shoulder. He peppered his talk with questions, trying to be subtle but I still heard them. Two miles back along the road, my name returned to me and I was astonished that I had ever lost it. He looked as delighted as I was. Our conversation turned to the pilgrimage. What was the third blessing? I edged around it. Something about a journey. I was not sure where.
We camped that night in a hollow between two smooth green hills, their round curves made pink and gold by the setting sun. Hazel told me we had been this way before and it did indeed feel familiar. Friendly, even. It was not until the next day, when we climbed up the slope and felt the fresh sea-scented air on our faces that I remembered.
I was a pilgrim, thrice blessed. I had been chosen to journey to the land where time stood still. Elated at the return of my memory, I poured it all out to Hazel. There was a legend of a land enchanted, surrounded by brambles and roses, and we would be the first to look upon it in 50 years. We had trained, we had purified ourselves, we had found a leader deaf to the dangerous songs in the air. We had thick scarves to wrap about our faces to protect us from the magical scent of roses. So many people had been found wandering, lost and starving, having lost their minds when they approached, but we had … we had a ritual to test our memories. I fell silent. Hazel looked at me with patient sympathy. I had failed. I could go no closer than this.
Our farewells were brief and sincere. Hazel walked briskly back towards our companions. I stood for a while and watched him get smaller and smaller into the distance. Then I turned my face towards home.