A Quiet Day in Hell
by Mary Byrne
In a corner of verdant countryside, a priest’s mother is washing an accumulated several months of linen sheets in a giant pot over an outdoor fire. She moves them around occasionally, raising the odd one above the water with giant wooden pincers to see how it is doing. Some sheets are sewn together from flour bags, others are embroidered across the top but there are fewer of these.
She knows each sheet intimately. Four priests live in the presbytery, her brother the oldest, her son the youngest. In a few years from now both will be dead because of the Revolution, her brother from sadness, her son guillotined. She will live to mourn them both. She can already read the character of the other two priests and could guess, if asked to, how they would react to trouble. One will cave in to the new revolutionaries, the other will abscond to England.
She studies, then releases the sheets. They are getting whiter, but it takes time. Clouds of steam rise from the pot. Her hair clings to her forehead and neck. She takes long rests, staring at her surroundings. The pincers never leave her hand.
This is a job done when work in the fields is over. She likes the solitary task with no one to bother her. Now, doing it for her brother and son, and merely by association for the other two priests, she has the added virtue of seeming to do something for the church. No one is aware that she doesn’t believe in God, least of all her son, who will die rather than be a traitor to the church, or her brother, who will die of shame and grief at the things he will see done in the name of the Revolution.
She is unaware that there was a Celtic word for laundry, its root in the French for utility room, buanderie. Her father described meat being once cooked in the ground or in water heated with stones from a fire in distant times, before pots were made. Her own method is a step ahead of the other village women who go to the basin by the river every week to exchange gossip, slap clothes around in the cold water then drag them home, half-wrung and heavy. She prefers to accumulate sheets. Because they need huge quantities of them between washes there are large oak armoires with carved curlicues to accommodate them.
Yesterday she soaked the sheets in water and ashes. Her mother called that stage ‘Purgatory’. Today, the second stage, her mother’s generation called ‘Hell’ because of the steam, although it is actually the easiest. Tomorrow, her son will help her wheel the clean sheets to the river for rinsing. They both ignore village mutterings that this is effeminate of him. Her mother called the third day ‘Paradise,’ without meaning it.
The sheets bubble and move in the giant pot. Her descendants will consider all these old methods hard work, energy-wasteful, slow, inefficient.
For the moment, she is at peace, doing something useful, Hell her favourite day.
Mary Byrne is the author of the short fiction collection Plugging the Causal Breach (Regal House 2019). Her short fiction has been published, broadcast and anthologized widely. She was born in Ireland and lives in France. She tweets at https://twitter.com/BrigitteLOignon.
Detail of engraving of two women washing sheets, courtesy of Wellcome Images, library reference ICV No 40276, photo number V0039710, Creative Commons CC0 1.0.