The Sisters

by David W. Landrum

Crispin Tallmadge liked the cold of the northern seacoast, where even in July the wind blew chilly and the nights passed clear and cold. It was good weather to work in. They had found some artifacts—a major find, in fact: two gold torq necklaces and a cache of jewelry unearthed by his spade already had places on the internet as spectacular archeological discoveries. The artifacts would go in a museum and his university back in the States would give him tenure, a promotion, and a pay raise. Colette had found nothing. This morning at breakfast she had once again expressed her ambition to excavate inside the Circle of the Sisters.

“No,” Crispin said.

“We have permission from the government.”

“The townspeople don’t want us doing it. I don’t want to get on their bad side.”

“Why not?”

“For one, they’ve been hospitable. We depend on the local people more than I can say. And no one has dug inside that circle for a thousand years. I’m not going to wave a piece of paper at them and say, ‘Sorry, we’re breaking your ancient customs. We won’t make too much noise.’”

“Can you imagine what might be buried there?”

“The injunction against using an edged tool on sacred soil goes all the way back to the Druids. Besides, look what we’ve found. That should be enough demonstrated that it’s good policy not to disturb ancient sites people hold sacred.”

“Are you telling me you believe that pious hogwash? I should have guessed as much when I found out you were a faithful churchgoer.”

Crispin had been surprised to find a fairly good-size Orthodox Church here, besides the Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic churches; in addition, enough border-crossers lived in the area that the Church of Scotland maintained a house of worship. He had asked Adela, who he found was a parishioner, how, in a predominately Protestant community, an Orthodox church throve.

“My sister and I like it,” she said. “The Protestant Churches are too plain and don’t emphasize the sacrament. The Anglican Church is too loose on who they let serve as ministers. The Catholic Church is too small and isn’t that different from the Church of England—or, increasingly, no different from the evangelical churches. Some Armenians settled here after the massacres in the early 1900s. They formed a congregation. Lots of folk like me, who long for the ancient liturgies, joined it. It’s the second biggest church in town now. Only the C of E place is bigger.”

He told her he was Orthodox.

“You’ll have to come and worship with us on the Lord’s Day.”

“I’d be delighted.”

“And would Miss Stover want to join us as well?”

“She doesn’t have much to do with religion, I’m afraid.”

The school had denied Colette tenure last year, and Crispin knew she wanted a significant find on this particular dig so she would have more clout when she returned in the fall; or, if tenure continued to elude her, so it would help her find a new job.

“After church, can I take you out for a drink?” he asked.

“Remember how traditional we are. All the pubs are closed on Sunday. But if you would like it, you can dine with Monesa and me.”

“It would be please me to be your guest.”

“We’ll be happy to have you. Perhaps later on we can host a party for everyone—your students workers, the local people helping out, and Miss Stover. Your student workers are a delight to be around.”

Adela had hired on as an assistant for the dig. It helped to have someone local on the team; someone who could advise him on the limits of what he could do in their quest for artifacts.

And so far so good. Near the three monoliths called the Sisters, Crispin’s team had uncovered, besides the torqs and jewels, some pottery that went back to the 800s and was perfectly preserved, not a chip on it, which was nothing short of miraculous since they had found it not wrapped up or in containers but simply buried in the dirt. They had also uncovered a horde of Roman coins and some metal plates inscribed with psalms in the Mercian dialect. He and his students had dug up enough to make anyone’s career and secure a reputation as an archeologist. Colette, unfortunately, had not been present when they made the big finds and, as such, could not put her name on any of the artifacts. That was why she seemed so keen on digging inside the circle of the Sister Stones.

“There’s got to be treasure there,” she said the next day. “It goes with local legend. A trove. Crispin, there has to be. It would be consistent with the story.”

He knew she was probably right. Local legend said the three sisters of a local chieftain, all beautiful, all vain, would stand by the shore and compare their beauty to that of the moon and would boast the jewels they owned were more beautiful than the stars. As punishment for their pride, they were turned to stone and their wealth sunk into the ground at their feet. Some said God did this to them, others said the gods, others the powers who ruled the sea. Their era was one when Christianity had arrived on the scene but pagan influence still manifested a strong presence. The townspeople declared the ground the three monoliths enclosed as sacrosanct earth.

“And,” Colette went on, “through the years people buried valuables in the circle of the stones as a check against vanity. Crispin, there is no telling what’s down there.”

He had the final say and kept saying no. She might have rebelled, but the situation in the university back home made her reticent to pick a quarrel with him.

A couple of days later, Colette asked Adela about it.

“One may bury something in the circle, but if anyone removes an artifact, a curse will come on them.”

“What kind of a curse?”

“No one is certain. The chronicle the city keeps records only two instances of digging. Both were in the 1800s, about three months apart.”

“Did the curse fall on the people who did it?”

“They disappeared,” she said, and went back to digging.

Adela Tudor had a trim, roundish body, red hair, freckles, and blue-grey eyes. Her strength and tenacious energy amazed Crispin. She could work all day, digging, hauling dirt, lifting rocks, and not tire out like his students did. She had a powerful body, strong legs, shoulders and arms.

“Quite a girl,” Colette remarked. “She’s strong as a ninth-century peasant.”

Crispin said she was a good worker.

On Sunday, he went to the address. Her sister, Monesa, answered the door. She looked like Adela but was taller, more Nordic and less Celtic. She led him inside.

“Adela isn’t ready,” she said. “She’s shaving her legs. We’re old-fashioned here and forget that the old ways look odd to some people. Can I get you tea?”

He accepted the tea. Just as Monesa set it down, Adela came into the room.

She had on a short blue dress. A white scarf encircled her neck. Not in her usual costume of shorts or jeans and t-shirts, Crispin smiled at her out of pleasure.

“You look very nice,” he said.

“I hope you can see I am a woman, not a ditch digger of the female variety.”

“I didn’t need much schooling to know that. You’ve certainly demonstrated it today.”

She giggled. “You are a well-spoken man. I overheard my beloved sister outlining my grooming habits.”

“It was a charming thing to know,” he answered. “I noticed it when you worked in shorts, I’ll admit. You’re that traditional up here?”

“Well, in a way. Nobody much cares about how you look. If you don’t shave your legs, people hardly notice—one of the pleasures of living here. But if I’m going to wear clothes like this”—she fingered the hem of her skirt—“I had better shave.”

“You look charming.”

“Let’s go.”

“Monesa!” she called. “That woman is always late.”

Monesa came down the stairs. Typical sisters, Crispin thought, smiling to himself. They started out for the church. It seemed the whole village had filled the streets, heading for various places of worship, dressed up, chatting, children walking with parents, friends greeting one another, families smiling, children running about. Halfway there, they ran into Colette.

She was dressed up. Crispin knew she did not go to church and how she often proclaimed her atheism. She came up to them.

“Church?” she asked.

“Yes. Would you like to join us?” Crispin returned.

“I’d be delighted to go along.”

“We’re going to the Saint Nicholas—the Orthodox Church. A lot of the service will be in Greek. You might feel out of place.”

“It will be something new—and something ancient.”

“Let’s go then.”

Colette fell in behind Crispin, next to Monesa. Soon the two were chatting in a friendly, animated manner.

Crispin thought the service beautifully done. Adela worshipped with a sincerity and humility he seldom saw. Her devotion seemed deep and unaffected. He marveled at her beauty, too—her meek quiescence in response to the holiness of the worship service heightened her loveliness.

Afterwards, they met the priest and his family and chatted with parishioners. As often happens in communities near a large body of water, clouds rolled in. Rain began soon after the four of them arrived at Adela’s and Monesa’s house.

Adela and Monesa cooked while Crispin and Colette sipped wine and listened to the rain pound and the thunder roll.

“It was interesting to listen to a liturgy that goes back a thousand years,” Colette commented.

Crispin took a drink of wine. “I’m amazed to find an Orthodox Church in this little corner of the world. I suppose it’s a reflection of how small the world has grown.”

They dined on beef, Yorkshire pudding, greens, and fresh bread. The Tudor sisters told them that they gardened (source of the vegetables), slaughtered their own beef (they managed a small herd of highland cattle), and baked their own bread.

“Keeps us busy,” Monesa laughed.

“It’s easier to go to the market, and sometimes we do go there,” Adela told her guests, “but we like to be as local as possible.”

“You slaughter your own animals?” Colette asked, shuddering.

“It’s not as bad as you think,” Adela replied. “Next time we put one of our cows to the knife, you can help us out. It would be a real lesson in the past for an anthropologist like you. We do it the old world way and that takes up most of an entire day.”

Crispin asked them if they were related to the royal Tudor family.

“Distantly,” Monesa said, “but, yes. We’re the same blood as Elizabeth, Edward, and Henry VIII. Maybe we shouldn’t admit to the last relative.”

Everyone laughed.

“A branch of the family left Wales and went north. We have relatives all up and down the coast and over in Scotland.”

Adela and Monesa served a sweet pudding and coffee and wine. They talked and drank until the rain dissipated, the sky cleared, and all of them were a little drunk. Monesa got a lute out and taught them an odd, modal tune from the early Middle Ages. She had studied ancient music at the University of Aberdeen, she explained. After more wine, Crispin said they needed to be going. He looked about for Colette but did not see her.

“She’s out back with Monesa,” Adela said. “She wanted us to show her around the farm. She said she would catch up with you at the B&B.”

Over the next few days, the soil yielded more treasure. The work party found more pottery—remarkably intact, some of it flawless, without chips or cracks despite its eight-hundred years age. They found a dagger scored with runes, a gold container filled with buttons, and a ceramic plaque with gold fleur de les and lions set on a red and blue quartered field.

“This looks familiar,” Crispin said, “but I can’t identify it.”

“Our family’s coat of arms,” Adela said, wiping dirt from her hands. “The Tudors.”

“This is a real find.” He gazed down at it, marveling. His career was made now.

“It’s beautiful,” Adela said.

He turned to her. “You don’t mind me taking it?” He turned it over. On the back, scratched into the title, a name was scratched.

“Tristana,” Crispin read.

Adela’s eyes grew wide.

“What?” he asked.

She recovered her composure and smiled. “Another one of our legends. Tristana was in a shipwreck. The god of storms was so taken with her beauty that he returned her to this shore and made her a stone by the edge of the sea. When a stranger speaks her name aloud, the legend said, she will revert to her true form.”

“Well, she’ll have a lot of catching up to do if she does become a flesh and blood lady once more.”

“Aye,” Adela said. “Maybe Monesa and I will have to take her in. We’re probably the closest relatives she would have. She was a Tudor.”

“You’d take her in?”

“Hospitality requires as much.”

Colette missed the finds of that day. She had driven to Glasgow to see bout a faculty opening at the university there.

The next day Crispin saw her talking with Monesa. It struck him that Colette might be working her—trying to get her to perhaps cover for her if she dug something up from the ground beneath the Sisters. When they had dinner that night he asked her how things had gone in Glasgow.

“They have an opening,” Colette answered. “If we find something here, it would be good because they’re interested in the monoliths here and elsewhere in Scotland.”

“We have found things.”

“You have, I haven’t.”

“We all share in the finds, Colette. You’ll get credit and can put it on your resume.”

“It would be much better to have something I could give to the university myself.”

He decided not to bring up his concern about her hanging around Monesa.

***

After dinner at her house, Crispin and Adela saw a lot of each other. When the dig crew broke for lunch, they went off together, shared food, sipped beer, and talked. More than one night they went to pubs, drank, danced, and hobnobbed with her friend from the village—she seemed to be friends with everyone who lived there. One afternoon when the team knocked off early, they went to the pub for a drink.

“Colette seems to be getting along with you and your sister,” he said. She nodded. He added, “I hope her motivations are… shall we say, honorable.”

“She wants Monesa to stand guard for her when she goes out to dig underneath the standing stones,” Adela said, smiling.

“I’ll stop her. Adela, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Monesa can manage your friend. Leave it to her.”

They finished the drinks, danced to a slow piece by the local band performing that night. Crispin walked her home and. On their way, they passed the dig site and the three lithic slabs called the Three Sisters. At the door to her house, he kissed her for the first time and walked back to the bed and breakfast where his team was lodged, the night sky blazing wildly overhead.

***

The last day of the dig Crispin and his students and workers had found more artifacts. Colette had received an email informing her that she had been cut back to part time at the university. Crispin said he would go to bat with her, but she brooded and sulked the rest of the day.

“Part time, then out the door,” she said. “That’s how it always works.”

“Glasgow?”

“That would be more certain if I had something to donate.”

“I can give you the plates with the Mercian psalms on them.”

“Thanks, but no. It needs to be something I find myself.”

“Don’t go digging in the circle around the Three Sisters, Colette. I mean it. I’ll go to bat for you when we get back to the States. You’ve contributed a lot to the dig. Don’t screw it up by doing something stupid. We’ve still got a week to dig. You can still make a discovery and I’ll let you have anything you find. Everything will work out.”

“You sound like Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love—‘it’s a mystery,’ right?”

He did not know how to answer her.

Crispin and his students went to a pub that night. Adela said she could not join them until later. A relative of hers had come in from Cardiff, but she would drop in to see him before the pub closed. Colette had told him she had been called in for a preliminary interview and Glasgow and left for there in the early afternoon. He hoped she could find something in the remaining days on the dig so her chances of getting on faculty would increase.

When the waitress said, “Time, gentlemen, please,” Crispin and his students rose drunkenly and headed for the various houses where they had boarded. Crispin stumbled to the bed and breakfast that had provided lodging for him and for Colette. Clouds hid the stars, though the night felt warm. He wondered why Adela had not come to the pub.

When he passed close to the Three Sisters, he heard noises and saw a light. He wondered who might be out by the monoliths this time of night and then realization struck him like a jolt of electricity. Colette. She had lied to him. She had not gone to Glasgow and was out by the Three Sisters digging for artifacts.

Crispin broke into a run, rushing past the standing stones into the sacred space at their center. He stopped when he saw a collapsible shovel stuck in the dirt and a flashlight on the ground. He did not see Colette. He listened for her. She had probably fled when she saw him coming toward her. He heard a noise. Someone crying. Voices spoke in a language he did not know—maybe Scots Gaelic, though it sounded somewhat like Middle English.

He turned. Coming out from behind one of the statues, he saw Adela and Monesa. Between them, trembling and crying, leaning on their arms, walked a young woman. He stared. She wore a threadbare dress that barely covered her body. She trembled and sobbed. Adela looked up and saw him. She and Monesa stood still. The girl continued to weep. Crispin broke out of the immobility of surprise, took off his nylon jacket, stepped forward, and draped it over the girl’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” Adela said.

“I saw a shovel and flashlight,” he said, puzzlement inflecting his voice. “Is Colette here?”

“Aye,” Adela replied.

“Where?”

She pointed to one of the three standing stones.

“Here. Here where Monesa and I stood for a thousand years until someone was foolish enough to dig in the sacred circle.” Monesa helped the girl slip her arms the sleeves zip up the jacket so it covered her down to her thighs. “I was freed from the curse by the same thing, a hundred years ago. A few years later, Monesa was also free.” She looked at the blonde girl. “And now the third, our sister, Tristana, is restored to us.”

He gaped. The girl—and she did look no older than thirteen or fourteen—had ceased weeping by now. Monesa held her and spoke to her in a language he now knew for certain was Middle English. The girl responded and looked more settled and in possession of herself.

I’m sorry I made up the story about Tristana being beloved of the sea god. I only did so because I was so startled at what had happened and had to say something. The truth is that she is the third sister, our youngest sister, imprisoned for a millennium, as we were. When a man spoke her name, it was foretold, she would speedily be freed. When you spoke her name, I almost swooned.”

“What about Colette?”

Colette befriended us only because she wanted to exploit us and secure our help in her plan to dig in the sacred circle. Her vanity and selfishness was greater than our own in the elder days. It led her to do an unholy thing by violating the prohibition. Colette asked my older sister to bring her here and a stand guard while she dug. We knew this would be the thing that would allow Tristana out of her bondage in the stone. Now Tristana is free. I will care for her. Monesa can return to her husband.”

“She’s married?”

“Her husband is in the Royal Navy, stationed near St. Ives.”

“Adela, you can’t expect me to believe this. Where is Colette?”

She took Crispin’s hand and put her own hand on one of the stones. “Listen.”

And he heard, in his mind, a tiny, pathetic cry of anguish and pleading words. It was Colette’s voice. Adela dropped her hand.

“You can hear her,” she said, “because you love me and know my soul and body are pure and that I would not lie to you. You have the disposition of a philosopher, Crispin. Do not let your syllogisms from the study of Aristotle lead you to dispute what I have revealed to you.”

Under the dark, low clouds, in the salt-scented wind that blew in from the sea, he knew she had told him the truth.

“Colette,” he said, as amazement engulfed him. He stared at the monolith.

“You love her as well. She will know mercy in the end, as we know it. The judgment sent upon her is just—as the judgment sent upon us was just. We are free now. All three of us are free. She might be freed as well, though it may be in a hundred or a thousand years. We will leave that to the ruler of the sea and sky. Come with us. I’ll explain more of it to you.”

He looked at the stone, light grey, higher than his head, standing in the wind, under the cloudy sky. Could he believe what Adela had just told him? He nodded slowly.

“Fetch the shovel and the torch, please.”

He went over and got them. She had a carrying bag. She put the flashlight in it and then folded up the entrenching tool and placed it in the bag as well. She set the bag down and came so close to Crispin. Their faces were almost touching.

“Can you still love me after this?” she asked. He looked into her eyes, wondering what she had seen and what memories lay in her soul. He put his arms around her. She rested her head against his shoulder.

“I did nothing to harm your friend. She did this to herself. I see in her a shadow of my own vanity and selfishness a thousand years ago. She will be cleansed of it, as I was.”

“I must go in a few more days. Will I see you after I return to America?”

“I’ll come to you. The love I have for you will be my heart’s guide. We will be together again. Be assured of it.”

He picked up the carrying bag. Adela went along beside him. Monesa followed, helping Tristana, the sister she had not touched in a thousand years, walk toward their simple thatched-roof house.

The End