Thursday, March 22
The vernal equinox had come and gone, and Easter would soon be upon them. The Reverend Maxen “Max” Tudor was in his vicarage working at his computer, a machine so antiquated, it almost needed foot pedals to operate. He was rather feverishly trying to write a sermon on one of Saint Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, a sermon that was beginning to irk even Max. Paul could sound so smug at times. So sure of himself. So holier-than—
Inspired, Max began to write: “Saint Paul at times appears to our modern world as the smug apostle—a man holier-than-thou, a preachy know-it-all full of scoldings and reprimands, chiding others for the way they lived their lives. But the Corinthians…”
But the Corinthians, what? There was no but. Saint Paul at his worst had always been hard to take—the garrulous, advice-giving uncle no one wanted to sit next to at dinner, the Polonius of his day. The fun-loving Corinthians had probably stampeded in their rush to avoid the old Gloomy Gus missionary.
Max, searching his mind for a more inspiring topic, a more accessible theme, a more man-of-the-people apostle, began playing with the various fonts in his word-processing software. Gothic typeface in deep purple for the stories of the apostles, orange Arial for the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary, and blue Garamond in italics for her replies. Max deliberated some more, then in twenty-point Gothic he typed “Let there be light,” and highlighted the words with the yellow text highlight function.
Well, this was getting him nowhere. He selected all the text on the page and with a sigh changed everything to boring old twelve-point black Times New Roman. He thought a moment, then keyed in “And darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
Backspace, backspace, backspace. He stole a glance at the copy of Glossamer Living magazine on his desk, left behind by one of his parishioners—a sort of negative inspiration, since he and his parishioners were living in the season of Lent, a time for setting aside personal indulgences, most of which were featured between the covers of this publication. High fashion and fast cars; pricey houses, restaurants, and vacations. On the cover was a photograph of a castle garden in Normandy, with a bed of Technicolor tulips in the foreground.
How had it gotten to be springtime already? Max, leafing through his desk calendar, blinked with something like wonder, then looked at the watch on his wrist, as if that might confirm what he was seeing. The variable weather of the past few months had been disorienting, for humans as well as for plants and animals. It seemed to him the newborn lambs had arrived earlier this year. Easter, the most important day in the church calendar, would be here before he knew it—or, at this rate, had a sermon ready for it. He noticed the full moon fell on Good Friday this year, which seemed fitting somehow. Awena called it the “Egg Moon”; he had no idea why. Some pagan tradition rolled into the Easter traditions, he thought, enjoying the unintentional pun.
The God Squad would be meeting soon to discuss the “Eat, Pray, Plan” retreat, and while preparing for these vestry meetings seemed a futile gesture, preparation was necessary to maintain some semblance of order. He also needed to schedule tryouts for instrumentalists for the Sunday services while the organist was away for the summer. Max so far had vetoed the zither and banjo, but that had left him with few options. Awena had offered to play her set of crystal singing bowls, but that was as yet a step too far for St. Edwold’s.
And—oops! There was the appointment with the bishop coming up in a few days’ time. How could he nearly have forgotten? The man’s secretary had been most insistent it was important, but she hadn’t known what it was about. Max, who could guess, took a red pencil out of the top drawer of his desk and drew a big star on his calendar by the appointment date. Then, still unwilling to return to his sermon, he scrabbled around in the drawer for a pencil sharpener and began honing all his pencils to a fine point.
As he procrastinated in this way, Max glanced out the casement window of the vicarage study. The slice of Nether Monkslip in his view was of a classic village whose roots predated recorded history, a place that had survived centuries of wars and feuds and conspiracies largely because it had managed to go unnoticed. It was a village of stone cottages and thatched roofs, and of timber and brick; of Tudor wattle and daub and Georgian houses and the occasional postwar development—a mix of styles pleasing to the eye and just managing to avoid the chaotic. Max, from his favorite spot up on Hawk Crest, where he would rest with his dog, Thea, from the strenuous climb, found time evaporating as he gazed, trancelike, at the peaceful scene below. The villagers more often than not would be going about their shopping, or be huddled in little groups, often accompanied by a swirl of dogs. He was reminded of a toy village setting for an elaborate train set. Outlying fields were divided by drystone walls kept in perfect repair; on a clear night, he might see in the distance a ferry leaving Monkslip-super-Mare, lights ablaze. Once the weather warmed, there would be a duck race on the River Puddmill, an event to which Max looked forward with as much innocent pleasure as a child.
The eldest villagers of Nether Monkslip, most of whom descended from serfs, were rapidly dying off or selling up, to be replaced by Yuppies from afar. These transplants—many his parishioners—were today carrying bright umbrellas against a mild March drizzle. They often passed down the road fronting the vicarage, headed to or from the High Street, which is why Max had positioned his desk at the window for maximum viewing. Hedges in front of the window provided a bit of a screen for him to hide behind.
He saw Suzanna Winship slink by, in her dolce far niente way, throwing a provocative glance in the direction of the vicarage and metaphorically revving her engines, probably just to keep in practice. He watched Elka Garth of the Cavalier Tea Room and Garden bustle past, carrying supplies, her son loitering empty-handed in her wake. That he was with her at all meant she’d managed to tear him momentarily from the video games he played so obsessively.
Then there came the ironmonger, delivering a roll of chicken wire, followed by the woman who created beaded-jewelry purses she sold over the Internet—Jeanne something. And Annette Hedgepeth, who owned Cut and Dried, the local beauty salon. Annette was with two of her hairdressers, their three shiny well-coiffed heads—one blond, one brown, one white—together in furious discussion under a large blue umbrella. Hairstylists, he supposed they were called now. The eldest of them he knew by name, even though she was not a member of St. Edwold’s, but attended a Catholic church in Monkslip-super-Mare. She was Gabrielle “Gabby” Crew—a widowed aunt or some sort of relation to Mme. Lucie Cuthbert—who would be at the dinner party to which he was invited Friday night. He knew little more about this woman with the beautiful white hair than that she was the type of person often to be seen with a yoga mat under her arm: She was a frequent habitué of the yoga classes taught by Tara Raine at the back of Awena’s Goddessspell shop.
The party was to be held at the new home of Frank and Lucie Cuthbert, just outside the village proper. The ostensible purpose of the gathering was to formally