Sarah Jane Smith leaned closer to the mirror as the memory sequence whirred behind the glass. “Good morning---“ the cheerful, bland voice began. She made a sound of disgust and snapped, “Restore default.” The voice stopped.
For a moment she reviewed her own activities of the previous morning. Why had she turned the damn thing on? Oh, she’d gone to town, walked to the village. On occasion, the vanity drive helped. But at the age of 153, looks mattered only for those infrequent walks into the village.
She looked, no thanks to the mirror or the vanity drive behind it, to be about 60. Anyway, she looked to be about 60 in the way she had known 60, 100 years ago. These days, with the latest-release vanity drives, the ones that came equipped for micro laser and lipo and the nanite injectors, many a 60 year old woman could pass for what 40 had been when Sarah Jane had been 40.
But nobody got to 153 these days, not even the youth-hungry mega-naires who equipped themselves with cyber-pumps for their hearts, cyber-disks for their backs, cyber hips, and the rest. No, they skied and climbed and played tennis into their 80’s and 90’s these days, but even they tended to drop dead before 100. Out on the court in the bright sun one day, barely able to notice the creeping inroads of pain, of bluish extremities and shortness of breath, if the mini-pumps allowed such things; and the next day, slumped over their Wheetabix, face down in the milk. Death was a lot less prolonged these days, but just as inexorable.
Or maybe, she thought, they still began to die the old fashioned way, but they didn’t know it any more. You never felt it until it came right on you. That’s what everybody said. The last big surprise.
Not so for her! She was a real 153, no gizmos, no implants, no surgeries. Just the TARDIS, she thought. For that was the source of this long, not entirely happy life. It had been that way for all of them: even the Brigadier, though she had lost touch with him. Nursing home, the last she’d heard: out of it. Didn’t know his own name, nor any of the assumed names he had taken to hide the fact that Lethbridge Stewart had never died like a proper soldier should.
But then, he led the list at about 170. Everybody---everybody in on the secret---was waiting, hoping. Would death finally take him? He was their hope. Surely, one day, one of them would die. The last big surprise would come at last for a survivor of the TARDIS. And then the others would have the relief of knowing it would take them too. She also hoped it was true. Especially after today.
For today was her big day: the final big day she could imagine. The house, the great old country house that had become her latest refuge and self-imposed prison, was festooned with bundles of straw and multi-colored corncobs, and pumpkins. The sideboard, piled like an altar at a harvest blessing, waited in a splendor of squash and pumpkin and nuts in the shell and autumn flowers. Nothing artificial, nothing genetically hybridized, nothing made by man.
And now, she wrapped an all-cotton towel around herself. No cosmetics today, not even the bit of touch-up to keep her hair back. Nothing synthetic for her clothing or demeanor. She dried off and swiftly donned a thick muslin shift, She thrust her feet into wooden Japanese shower clogs. Then she looked at herself again in the washroom mirror. She looked younger then she was, a jaunty appearance of 60 at the age of 153, but still older than she wished---too old. She’d let her hair go gray, and her cheekbones, so pretty in her youth, now seemed to make her face drawn, or so she thought. Only her eyes retained that youthful brightness that warned her that death was no where near, not yet.
But in the shift, with her hair straight and gray, she looked suitably simple, and perhaps humble. The late August day was warm enough for the great windows, each polished by hand by Sarah Jane herself, to stand open. The great glass doors at the back of the house also stood open. Sunlight poured in.
She had forgotten the exact minute that the waxing full moon would be complete. Sometime towards late afternoon. For the ephemeris had talked to her about “orb of influence,” the margin of error, the path of the light. The full moon would fall exactly on Fomalhaut in an instant, waxed to its brightest glory. But the rays, the light, that thing called “dignity” might be sufficient several minutes before the full moon was complete, and it might also travel and reach her several minutes after the full moon had begun, imperceptibly, to wane from perfect fullness.
So there was no knowing the exact moment that Fomalhaut might come. Sarah Jane had to be prepared. She had no idea, after all these preparations and the years of longing, if Fomalhaut would come at all. But if there ever was a day that Fomalhaut would visit her, this was that day, when the circuit of earth and light made a complete path to the star that was the Mouth of the Fish, the ever open mouth that proclaimed Mercy because it received abundant Mercy.
“I need Mercy,” Sarah Jane whispered. “Please, God, give me the Mercy to die and to be glad of it. When Fomalhaut comes, please take me back to the heavens with her, forever.”
A day that was begun in the hope of meeting God should include the proper observances. Clip-clopping in the Japanese shower clogs, she left the bath room and roamed the hallways of the great country mansion in search of her notes for Dying.
They were flung haphazardly around the sofa in the great room. Sarah Jane gathered them up. She felt that the light outside was too bright and cheerful. As a supplicant, a penitent, perhaps she should stay in the dim great room. With a bit more labor to do so than she had once needed, she got down to her knees with the papers spread out on the Ottoman before her.
For a moment, her heart ached: not the ache of death, but of memory. She wanted to tell God of all that He had taken away from her: her youth, the strong belief that every day was a new adventure, the bright optimism of being young. And then, worse: Nick. He grew old and died while she remained obstinately young. And Kyree and Celia, her own children: aged and died. And then Ted: husband number Two. And Philip: Philip the Third. They watched her live without aging, at least not noticeably, and then they died. Philip had even crossed into the age of the cyber pumps, but it had not prolonged things much.
For all of them, their last memories were her kind words, her hands holding theirs, the scent of her hair, her perfume near them, as she whispered the long goodbye. “You’ve been like an angel these last few months,” Kyree had said. And Celia, far more plain-spoken: “Mum, I’m going away.”
Nobody should remember their children’s last words, she thought, but she clamped down on it. She focused on what was more appropriate:
O bless the Lord my soul;
His grace to thee proclaim,
And all that is within me
Join to bless His Holy Name.
O bless the Lord my soul
His mercies bear in mind
Forget not all His benefits:
The Lord to Thee is kind.
Outside, in the open hallway that led to the broad garden behind the house, one of the sheaves of straw fell over. Sarah Jane forced the distraction from her attention.
He will not always chide
He will with patience wait.
His wrath is ever slow to rise,
And ready to abate.
He pardons all they sins,
prolongs thy feeble breath.
He healeth thy infirmities
And ransoms thee from death.
Another sheaf fell over, and there was an audible thump. A horrible idea, badgers, flashed across her mind. Sarah Jane, even with Fomalhaut ready to burst into the terrific splendor of a full moon over her house, could not resist the fear of badgers walking up the hallways and hiding behind the furniture. She struggled from her knees to her feet and after a moment of letting the blood return to her legs, she swept out in her muslin shift. As she went through the kitchen she seized the broom as a means of defending herself.
Then, at sight of a foreign image, a character straight from a madhouse, Sarah Jane backed up. An old woman, gray hair askew, eyes wild with insanity, crouched on the near side of the glass doors, by the refuse bin reserved for making suet. Her hand was still inside, fishing out the odd bit of food for herself. And there was no mistaking, even apart from the frantic insanity in those huge eyes, that she was also starving.
This hag, all bones and wild gray hair, saw the broom in Sarah’s hands and flinched against the wall. She turned her head to the side and closed her eyes, expecting to be struck. She had, Sarah Jane noticed, in spite of her own horror, the profile of a face once noble and almost aristocratic. But the sunken eyes and withered skin had worn away any grandeur.
She was whimpering something. As Sarah Jane inched closer, broom ready, she made out the words, “Just food. Just food.”
Sarah Jane’s own fears abated slightly. This crone, whether or not she meant harm, clearly needed food and water. The question of where she had come from had to be postponed.
“I won’t hurt you,” Sarah Jane said cautiously. “If you promise to behave yourself.”
The eyes of the withered old woman opened, filled with the fear of being struck. But they fixed on Sarah Jane with sudden comprehension. And then the large eyes suddenly became focused, and as Sarah Jane, with a reluctant inspiration, set the broom against the wall and let go of it, the eyes became more still, almost intelligent.
“Mercy,” the woman said quite clearly. It might have been a question, but it was not a plea. She was offering the word as a statement of possible common ground between them.
“Jean?” Sarah Jane asked suddenly. For at the word she instantly recalled the heavenly benefactor who had assumed the persona of an old woman. It had happened over a century ago. But for an instant, a crazy, impossible notion that Jean herself, Fomalhaut, could be thrown to earth, tormented and bound, and had come to Sarah Jane’s own door for help raced across Sarah’s mind.
Just as quickly, she dismissed it. No power could overthrow Jean, for Jean accepted all that came to her, and she received everything from the Great Water Bearer. Sarah Jane had seen Jean swallow up the evil Insider with no more concern for herself than a flower dreads the rays of the sun. Evil dashed itself to pieces in Jean, but she could not be dashed, simply because she received all and poured it back as a blessing.
And though it had all happened when Sarah Jane was not yet thirty, some of the jumble of memories from her days in the presence of Fomalhaut remained the most vivid of her life. This was not Jean.
Sarah Jane nearly asked another question, but then she dismissed that as well. There was a priority here: a hierarchy. Her own questions had to yield before the suffering of this old woman.
“I won’t hurt you,” Sarah Jane said clearly. “I’ll give you food. And tea. Would you like tea?”
And now, Sarah Jane realized that the insanity in the old woman’s eyes might have been the frenzy of starvation and suffering. For they suddenly appeared almost normal, even suddenly perceptive. The woman hesitated, and then her eyes filled again with her fear, as though it were kept in a reserve in her mind: a pool of pleading and begging and dread. But Sarah waited, her breathing calm and her eyes sober and kind. At last the old woman nodded at the invitation, and the image of her fear faded again, for the moment.
“Can I help you?”
Sarah Jane didn’t exactly want to, but she made herself come closer and open her arms, carefully and slowly, to help. And the crone needed help. Up close, she smelled like urine and old phlegm, the stale, musty smell of confinement with other old people, those few whose minds could not be saved. She hesitated and then let Sarah Jane assist her to stand. Her clothing, Sarah Jane noticed, were the remains of a type of hospital robe, covered by cast-offs plucked from dust bins. The shoes tied around the emaciated ankles were men’s work shoes: obviously stolen from some doorstep. In spite of whatever protection they afforded, she was footsore. She limped as Sarah Jane helped her, and she let Sarah Jane take her weight and support her.
Sarah Jane helped her to a chair at the breakfast table and gave her a small glass of water with a straw in it. The old woman sucked up the water greedily. She threw those eyes of appeal to Sarah Jane to ask for more, and Sarah Jane brought her more. “You should drink it slowly,” Sarah Jane said. But she didn’t have the heart to make the old woman wait.
She had to turn her back on her to pop four slices of bread into the toaster and then spread them with butter and jam. And then she brought her visitor more water and the first plate of toast, while the kettle whistled. The woman’s hands were spidery. She took up a piece of the toast in each hand and started eating before Sarah had even set down the plate.
“What should I call you?” Sarah Jane asked as the old woman, who appeared to have all her teeth, or at least the ones in front, bit into the toast. But the woman only threw an uncomprehending glance at her, as she chewed rapidly and then bit into the toast again. The food was distracting her, absorbing all her attention. She could not listen and eat; the hunger was too severe to let her think about anything other than chewing and swallowing.
And yet, for all her hunger, Sarah Jane, thought, she had manners: she ate only from the toast in her right hand, while the left waited. And even her bites into the toast, though swift, allowed for some pauses. She was not simply cramming it all into her mouth. Indeed, with her erect posture and bearing, it was clear that she was trying to eat without losing her dignity, an odd image of good table manners dressed in rags with hair knotted and tangled and dirty. Sarah Jane retrieved the next four slices of toast from the toaster, applied the butter and jam, and brought the second serving on a new plate.
“Thank you,” the woman gasped and then she resumed eating, finishing the first plate, swiftly but with moderate bites, the small jaw working as rapidly as it could to chew and swallow.
Sarah Jane brought her a cup of tea. The woman’s chewing paused, and the large dark eyes settled on the steaming mug with evident longing. She looked up at Sarah Jane, eyes clearly intelligent, and for a moment paused but didn’t speak.
Sarah Jane hesitated. “Do you take sugar?” she asked politely.
The old woman nodded. Now that a minute or two had gone by, the effect of the hydration from water had made her eyes less sunken and her skin less haggard. The nobility of the profile was slightly more evident. And the eyes under the wild hair, Sarah Jane realized, were wet and expressive.
Sarah Jane spooned in a heaping teaspoon and stirred it. The old woman folded her lips together as though in anxious anticipation, and looked down at the tea. She actually stopped chewing. “You may have it. It’s yours,” Sarah Jane said. But the large eyes, now suddenly enormous and very wet, looked back up at her. All the fear was flooding into them.
“Don’t cry,” Sarah said gently. “The tea is for you.”
“It’s too hot,” she said, afraid. “Please don’t make me.”
“No, of course not, dear.” Real horror struck at Sarah Jane. A new question of abuse flashed across her mind. But she said kindly, “We’ll cool it down with an ice cube.”
She crossed to the ice maker and popped out one ice cube. As soon as she dropped it into the steaming cup, her guest’s fear relaxed. Sarah swirled the cup to dissolve the ice cube and cool the tea, but she saw that her guest now had her attention fully fixed on the cup. Clearly, she did want tea.
And when Sarah brought it, the woman opened her mouth, too preoccupied with food to let go of the pieces of toast in either hand. Sarah found herself holding the cup as the woman drank the tepid tea. She drank nearly all of it. When she stopped, she was panting slightly. “Do you share here?”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane said instantly. But as though she had not spoken, the woman said, “It’s his cup after all. Mine broke when they burned me. But he shares.” Then, almost entirely to herself: “He’d love that tea. Oh, I’d never carry that cup all the way back. I’d spill it. I’ve lost my way.” Then she abruptly stopped herself, as though startled, coming back to herself all in an instant. She shot a frightened, cautious look at Sarah Jane and became silent.
“It’s all right,” Sarah Jane said. “I won’t hurt you. If somebody else has hurt you, I won’t send you back.”
The woman looked down. And much more slowly, as though afraid to startle Sarah Jane into any type of sudden action, she ate another piece of toast, bite by bite, chewing slowly and swallowing carefully. But she wouldn’t look up.
“Would you like more?” Sarah Jane asked her. After a long moment of silence and stillness, the woman shook her gray head, frightened again, too frightened after this string of kind actions from Sarah Jane to tempt her by asking for more. Yes, this was abuse, Sarah thought. The victim lived in a world that was so arbitrary that too many good things frightened her, for bad was sure to follow. Somebody had held her for a long period, captive to his or her will, inflicting pain and humiliation.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Sarah Jane said. She rested one hand on the woman’s shoulder, felt the barely perceptible flinch, and lifted her hand. Her guest was holding her breath, her free hand knotted into the tight, emaciated fist of an old woman: a fist made from fear, anguish.
Sarah dropped her own hand to the fist, and the old woman opened her fingers and held onto her hand. It was a type of permission, and Sarah Jane knew it. With her other hand, she peeled back the layers of ruined jacket collar and robe from the woman’s neck.
The first glimpse she got was of smooth skin, a smoothness that surprised her. But then she saw the old welts. Nothing infected and nothing still fresh, but a criss-crossed network of welts on her upper back, some healed and some pink. She gently replaced the collars. “I won’t send you back,” she said. “I will protect you.” She said it automatically, for this was the duty of mercy. But she realized, as she said it, that protecting this woman would certainly complicate her plans for leaving.
“Flowers,” the woman said suddenly, and the tight, frightened, grip relaxed. She lifted her head. “Flowers are suddenly everywhere.”
“Do you smell flowers?” Sarah Jane asked kindly. “Sometimes that happens here.” Sarah herself no longer could smell the sweetness that had been hung upon her in the presence of Fomalhaut. It was too long ago, or so she had told herself. But from time to time, she could see the sudden, grateful looks in the eyes of strangers who passed near her, the sudden light in the faces of shop keepers and waiters and drivers with whom she spoke. And she knew that they could smell that inexplicable fragrance that promised mercy and comfort. But she couldn’t smell it any more.
More from a sense of duty than from any genuine desire to do so, Sarah Jane lowered her head and kissed the matted, tangle of gray hair. She held the old woman for a moment. “No more fear,” she said gently, and the old, intermittent power kicked in. The woman calmed down and breathed in deeply, inhaling the sweet fragrance. She slowly took up the three remaining pieces of toast, one by one, and ate them, chewing them with more care and less speed. Sarah remembered, long ago, eating the globes of honey under Fomalhaut’s protection. She did not actually want this stranger here. She did not want her hopes of leaving dashed this way. And yet, in spite of this unexpected change to her plans, she felt an odd privilege in giving the mercy that she had received to another person, in much the same way.
The woman quietly pushed the plate back an inch or two, a signal of being finished.
“Would you like more?” Sarah asked. And now she sensed the curtain of fear and pain parting. The old woman looked up at her, swallowed, and said, “May I have a bath here? I’ve become quite untidy.”
* * * *
Sarah Jane had purchased brand new clothing, even down to underwear, to don for the day when Fomalhaut may come. She gave the new garments to her guest, who spent nearly an hour in the bathroom and would hold a towel protectively in front of herself in the roomy tub when Sarah knocked and poked her head inside the door to check on her. But her guest, whatever her other confusion, knew how to maneuver her way around a well equipped bathroom. Sarah heard the rattle of the little used bottle of bath oil pearls as it was opened, and the plopping of the translucent pearls as they were dropped into the steaming water.
She heard the plunge when the old woman went under and came up again, the click and clatter of the hair gel cap when it dropped to the floor, the whirr of the bath jets, the hum of the solar lamps. This was a woman who, at least at one time, had known the middle class luxury typical of this era.
After nearly an hour, the drains gurgled, and she heard the self cleaner kick in, a sure sign that the occupant of the tub had stepped out onto the bath mat. Just as Sarah Jane wondered if she understood the vanity drive, she heard the computerized voice say, “Welcome, guest, would you like to dry your hair? How about a trim?”
And the voice, familiar with this environment, said in a rehearsed way, “Untangle with care, please.” She knew the words but had not said them in a long time.
Twenty minutes later, wearing the new cotton slacks and muslin blouse that Sarah Jane had intended for herself, the woman shyly emerged from the bath room. Her gray hair, though clean, and combed down as much as its natural waves would allow, was still slightly askew, not styled in any way that the vanity drive could read. And her face, with her skin reconditioned by water and bath oils, looked healthier. She was not, as Sarah Jane had first thought, a mass of wrinkles. But her lips and the corners of her eyes showed her age. And the stark emaciation of her body was not entirely softened from the new, clean clothing.
Yet still, Sarah Jane thought, the dignity of that face, the profile of a great woman, was even more apparent. Even so, the woman was still confused and slightly frightened. She was either uncertain that she could say the right words that she wanted, or she was simply afraid to speak.
She shrank against the bathroom door as Sarah Jane stepped closer, and Sarah Jane made her voice kind. “Would you like to rest now? You must be tired.”
The old woman shook her head. “I can go. No trouble. No trouble.”
“You’re no trouble, “ Sarah said, an untruth. The fact was, this woman was a load of trouble. She had come at the exact wrong time. For Sarah Jane had purchased this very house to be under the great full moon when Fomalhaut was illuminated in the heavens. And she had made a timetable of prayers to God, of waiting, of observing through the great telescope in Switzerland (watching by means of her computer) to know when the time was ripe, when Fomalhaut might return and grant her desire to go back to the heavens. For once, Fomalhaut---Jean---had held her and reluctantly sent her back to earth. Now, Sarah thought, I’m ready to leave earth forever and learn about that Mercy.
But here, at the very last minute, a homeless old woman, a refugee from some abusive care facility, had fallen on her doorstep, starving and filthy and beaten.
And Sarah Jane, who knew she didn’t fully understand Mercy, still understood the rules of Mercy well enough to know what she had to do. She had to show Mercy. She had to be kind and charitable to this insane old woman. Mercy instantly let go of its preconceptions and accepted what ever came. She knew that much.
The woman, unconvinced by Sarah’s guarantees of safety, kept shaking her head. She inched along the wall to get away, her feet still clearly hurting her through the slippers Sarah Jane had lent her. “I’ll come back. I’ll come back.”
“Please,” Sarah Jane said. “Don’t be afraid of me. I won’t send you away. I won’t call anybody. You can stay and sleep.” It was no good. The woman kept inching away, and any minute she might even try to flee. Sarah tried something new. “I am ordering you,” she said with gentle deliberation. “Stop your fear.” And the woman stopped. Not the fear, but her retreat. Sarah made her voice solemn. “For your own safety, you must not leave. And by all that is mercy, I will keep you safe. I promise.”
The old woman, those eyes large and wet with uncertainty and fear, met her eye and waited, her retreat stopped by the power of that command. Sarah Jane relaxed and let herself breathe calmly. For a moment, she let the rich silence work on her guest. And then she spoke quietly. “You asked me about Mercy, and I do need Mercy, and I want to be allied with Mercy.” She paused. “Like you do.”
After a moment, the face of her guest became less wary, and a look of recognition crossed her eyes. She had no idea where she was, but it was that fragrance, Sarah Jane thought, returning as they spoke, resting on them again. “Those flowers,” the woman said. “Are they in your clothing?” She glanced at the wall and lifted a hand, and Sarah saw that the once spidery fingers, now softened and rehydrated, were actually graceful. “Are the flowers in the walls here?”
Sarah Jane kept her voice calm. “The fragrance rests on me from time to time. Would you like to go upstairs and take a nap?”
Instantly, all calmness evaporated. “No, not upstairs. Please. Please.”
“This is my house. The upstairs is lovely,” Sarah Jane began.
“Please, please.” She folded her hands together. “Please no. I’ll be good.”
“Well all right. All right. There’s a lovely sitting room this way.”
“Please, not upstairs.”
“No, we’ll stay down here. This way. It’s all right.”
She still had to do a good deal of persuading and reassuring, and for the first time it dawned on Sarah Jane that this woman could truly be suffering from dementia. There were moments when she had no idea what Sarah was saying.
But at last, Sarah led, supported, and coaxed her, limping, into the bright and sunny sitting room that overlooked the garden. The bright August sun had warmed the room, and on sudden inspiration, Sarah Jane adjusted the wall control to keep the temperature from cooling off too much. She set the air flow to “intermittent breeze:” A soft and soothing air flow.
“Isn’t this a lovely sofa? Why not sit down? You could even have a lie down later if you want.”
“No, no. I can stay awake.” The old woman obediently sat down as Sarah Jane guided her down to the sofa, the large eyes still fixed on Sarah Jane’s face, still dreading unknown torments that might lie ahead.
“All right, dear. You can sit up and look out at the pretty flowers outside. Would you like more tea?”
The woman’s eyes got bigger at the invitation, and Sarah Jane pointed back the way they had come. “That’s the kitchen right through there. You can watch me as I make tea for us. And I’ll put an ice cube in for you.”
The woman’s eyes remained doubtful, but she nodded. Sarah Jane did a quick calculation. It had been over an hour since the old woman had broken her fast on eight slices of toast and jam. Not much after weeks or months of slowly starving.
“Would you like some lovely biscuits?”
Now the nod was eager and hopeful.
“I’ll bring them right to you, and then I’ll make tea.”
The old woman watched her as Sarah hurried to the kitchen, but she didn’t rise from the sofa. Walking was too painful, but the dark eyes never left Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane returned with a glass of water and a plate of store-bought biscuits.
“These are all for you,” she said clearly as she set the plate down onto the coffee table. To make sure the invitation was clear, she took up a biscuit and gently put it into her guest’s hand. “You eat that, and you can have as many as it takes to fill you up.”
The woman dipped her head to show understanding. “Thank you.” She bit into the biscuit, her eyes intent once again with the expression of somebody who has been hungry for a long time. Eating seemed to absorb most of her concentration, at least until Sarah Jane stood up. The woman didn’t stop eating, but her eyes followed Sarah Jane as Sarah returned to the kitchen.
But she ate methodically and quickly, trying not to drop crumbs. Sarah stopped worrying about her. The food would keep her right there. The woman might be demented, but there was no violence in her, no hallucinations to spur her into fury or panic. Food would console her. And she needed it desperately. As Sarah swiftly worked, she could hear the steady crunch crunch of the biscuits disappearing. It was a perfectly steady, unvarying rhythm, a business-like way of consuming food that spoke of true starvation.
While the water boiled, Sarah arranged the tea pot and beakers. She poured the hot water in to let the tea leaves steep, added a plate of crackers and a soft hunk of cheese to the small meal, dropped an ice cube into one of the empty beakers, and carried the tray to the sitting room.
Now, as she crossed the threshold of the sitting room, the fragrance of that heavenly Mercy greeted her like a cloud. She stopped, stunned. The fragrance was not coming from her. It was here, in the room. Just as it had been in the presence of Fomalhaut. For an instant, Sarah stared at her visitor, who had set the empty plate onto the coffee table and was now nodding from sleepiness and trying to keep her head up.
But no, the fragrance was not coming from her, either. It was simply here. And Sarah’s guest, reluctant as she had been to yield to sleep, was now clearly more amenable to it.
Sarah set down the tray and crossed to her. “Wouldn’t you like to straighten out your legs on the sofa?” she asked. “Just a little rest. You don’t have to sleep if you don’t want to. You can keep your eyes open. Just rest.” It was an invitation she had used a century ago to coax her little girls to nap.
The old woman, now so sleepy that she was rubbing her eyes, allowed Sarah Jane to help her lie down on the sofa.
“It’s all right. I’ll be here with you. I’ll watch out for us,” Sarah whispered. All the while her mind raced. Was this fragrance the beginning of the appearance of Fomalhaut, the herald of her visit? A vast relief flooded Sarah Jane. A new idea crossed her mind: Jean, who always knew what to do to show mercy, might give the poor old woman a deep and reviving sleep, and then come for Sarah Jane. There might be some escape yet by the hand of Mercy from a life and a world where she no longer belonged.
The old woman’s eyes closed, and Sarah unfolded a light cotton throw and gently drew it over her. A pang of guilt assailed her. She had shown the requisite Mercy, but she had not felt any real commiseration with her pitiful guest. Those days, the days of participating in the feelings and thoughts of others, were gone. She had known too many minds, too many hearts, had too many friends, all dead, to willingly thrust herself into any real link to a person; nothing beyond pleasantries. And necessities of charity.
Guiltily, she rested her hand on the woman’s clean, combed, but untamed hair. I have forgotten how to truly love my fellow man, she thought. This old woman, half out of her mind, still knew how to do that. Sarah Jane could tell. It was there in her. Indeed, she had made a passing reference to somebody at whatever place she had come from as sharing his tea with her. She had a friend, somewhere. That was more than Sarah Jane had.
I don’t deserve to go back to the heavens, Sarah Jane thought. And for the first time in over a century, she wondered what Jean, the unchanging Fomalhaut, would find when she came upon this sad creature who had once been so young, so curious, and so joyful in discovering Mercy’s treasures.
Thoughtfully, she stroked back the thick, unruly gray hair of her charge. The fragrance, long ago, had gradually rejuvenated Sarah Jane when she had been dying from infection, starving, and perishing of thirst. And now, at least she thought so, that same gradual rejuvenation seemed to be taking place in her guest. She did not look younger in sleep, but she looked more peaceful. And with the frightened, disoriented eyes closed, the face looked even more strong, a handsome woman’s profile, now aged but filled with dignity.
Whoever she was, she had come a far way, on foot. Desperate to get away from something, determined to survive. The memory of supporting her weight nudged at Sarah Jane. There was no need to be extraordinarily careful: the sleep produced by the fragrance was deep and profound. Sarah slid onto the sofa and lifted the woman’s slippered feet onto her lap. She gently pulled off one of the slippers.
The boney foot, though clean from the long bath, was blistered, with a raw patch on the heel where the outer skin had scraped away. A smaller raw patch was on the ball of the foot. The big toe was bent inward, the joint swollen from a long trek in poor shoes. Sarah Jane tried to calculate the distance those aged feet had traveled. She gently removed the other slipper. The other foot was just as bad.
Sarah Jane decided against giving the feet any first-aid attention yet. She didn’t want to awaken the woman with such prolonged handling, and there was the danger of accidentally causing her pain and frightening her. And now that the fragrance was all around the both of them, Sarah herself began to doze. After a few seconds, the feet still cradled in her lap, she let her head drop back onto the back of the sofa. Maybe this fragrance would be all that she would see again of Fomalhaut. Maybe human beings were not allowed to ask for death. I don’t know any more, Sarah Jane thought. I’m just going to sleep. For right now I’m going to sleep.
* * * *
Sarah opened her eyes. It was night, and the white light, from the waxed and brilliant moon above, flooded the garden. Sarah Jane held her breath as she saw the silver glory that illuminated the lawn and hedges like a heavenly spotlight. This was Fomalhaut’s hour: the silver star of mercy enthroned by both the sun and moon, with the moon resplendent in dignity.
The bare feet on her lap peddled as the old woman began to awaken. She opened her eyes, saw the brilliant silver light and whimpered, but the sound made Sarah look at her. It was an intelligent sound, a sound of recognition. The fragrance had rejuvenated her, and the light itself seemed to clear away more of her confusion as she stared at it through the great windows.
“Oh the Light of God’s Mercy,” the old woman said clearly, her eyes large and sad but no longer afraid. “From this Light Gabriel emerged, the keeper of Paradise.” Then two tears sparkled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She struggled to get onto her side, and then she slipped her feet off Sarah Jane’s lap and sat up. “Help us, O God, to see by that light. Help us to be brave when the horsemen come.”
Then she looked directly at Sarah Jane, her eyes intelligent but sad. “Sarah Jane, death isn’t given to us to put us to sleep. We have to beg God for Mercy so that we can know that there is a last refuge. Mercy is the refuge. Not death.”
“Who are you?” Sarah Jane asked.
The woman didn’t hesitate. “I don’t remember my name. I don’t recognize your face. But you are Sarah Jane Smith. Or you were.”
“Are you Jean?” Sarah Jane heard herself say, though she knew it could not be true. “Are you Fomalhaut?”
“No,” the woman said. “I’m---I can’t remember my name. They told me that my name doesn’t matter any more because nobody knows I’m still alive. And then they whipped it out of me, and they used shocks, too. And hot tea. They held me under water, too. Because I no longer exist. And he’s still there. We have to get him.”
“Who?” Sarah Jane asked.
The woman drew a blank. More tears suddenly spilled out of her eyes. “I can’t remember his name. He’s the one. The only other one. He’s the one we both knew.”
A new idea struck a spark of hope in Sarah Jane. “The Doctor?”
The question had no meaning for her guest. She slowly shook her head. “He’s not---not that, I don’t think.”
Somebody knocked on the front door. The old woman jumped. Her frightened eyes, pleading, met Sarah Jane’s. “If they take me away again, please save us. Please don’t leave us in there.”
Sarah Jane stood up. “Nobody will take you from here.” Her voice, even to her, sounded unearthly: calm and powerful. But she realized with a slight twinge of embarrassment that she was still wearing the muslin shift. She would answer the door looking like Lady Macbeth.
“They’re too strong for you---“
Sarah dismissed the momentary self consciousness. It had no place in the mindset of Mercy. She answered her guest. “No, not now, not tonight. This is Fomalhaut’s hour. Nobody’s going to hurt us now.” We can swallow the danger now, she thought. But she didn’t say that out loud. But she knew, in the Hour of Fomalhaut, that the key was to meet the danger, not flee from it.
She strode out of the room and went straight to the front door, expecting to confront a policeman or some other person out searching for a wandering old woman. She pulled it open and feigned being indignant. “What do you mean, knocking on my door at this hour---“ But she caught herself. A tiny slip of a girl, her hair streaked with blond highlights under an enormous waterproof hat, beamed up at her with large, lively eyes. “Poor dear, I didn’t mean to frighten you, but could you spare a lost ninny a cup of tea? A cuppa tea and a slice o’ cake? I’ve come a long way. And this bright moonlight---it’s downright eerie, Luv. Wouldn’t you let me in until the landscape looks a bit less strange?”
“I’ve lost me way, Duck. I’m looking for a Sarah Jane Smith, and I can’t seem to find her.” And now the happy, dark eyes looked laughingly up at Sarah Jane. But she took a second look at the floor-length shift. “Oh dear me, I am sorry. Were you just going to bed?”
Sarah Jane’s birth name had not been spoken in her presence in over 50 years. And now, tonight, two people had spoken it within a few minutes of each other.
“Who are you?” Sarah asked.
“I’m Jo Grant, Love. And I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Sometimes, in recalling over three half-centuries of life, Sarah Jane needed a second to place a name or a face. But this name jumped right out at her: her own youth, the happy faces of her friends at the pub, the teasing and the beer and the darts and the whispered jokes on those rare evenings when they could stop for a moment, before the TARDIS whisked her away again. Jo Grant knew that life as well.
When her own seemingly endless life had begun to be a burden, there had been letters exchanged from time to time, enough for Sarah Jane to know that she was not alone, that other people who had stepped into the TARDIS were still alive, their aging incredibly slowed. Eventually, she had dropped out of the circle of letters, for there was no point in them. But she knew this name, and after a moment she recognized the face.
“Come in.” And she stepped aside. It was the worst possible moment to have to play hostess to the homeless woman in back. But Jo Grant, instinctively following the heavenly sweetness that radiated from the sitting room, made a beeline for the secret visitor.
Alarmed, Sarah Jane closed and locked the door and followed. She got to the doorway of the sitting room just in time to hear the old woman exclaim, “Jo!”
“There you are!” Jo Grant exclaimed, pulling off the large, floppy hat designed, one would assume, to shed buckets of rain. She undid her waterproof jacket, threw it aside, then sat alongside the woman and took her in her arms.
The old woman did what she had not done in Sarah’s presence. She began to cry, whole heartedly. She fitted her head under Jo Grant’s chin and sobbed, and she held onto the former UNIT agent, as though all along, her ramble had not been an aimless, frenzied escape as Sarah had supposed, but rather a desperate search for Jo Grant. Sarah felt a pang of guilt. The observation seemed to be correct, for Jo herself dropped her façade of dotty merriment and for a moment shed quieter tears on the old woman’s head as she comforted her.
“Poor Puddleduck,” Jo said. She cuddled the weeping old woman closer. “I looked everywhere for you. I went back to see if they’d gotten you again, but I finally figured out you’d gotten away. I took too long to find you. I’m sorry. But I was looking every moment.”
“Jo,” and her breathing gasped so hard from the strength of her first sobbing tears that Sarah felt a moment’s keen worry for the woman. “You found me again!” And then she didn’t try to say more, too overwhelmed. Jo made her own voice soothing, calming her.
“I would never stop looking, dear.” And Jo Grant, unhindered by any reluctance, kissed the old woman’s head three or four times until the sobbing slowed and became quieter. “It’s all right now,” Jo whispered “We’re safe, at least for tonight. The bright star has guided us in. Now we’re all together.” She rocked back and forth until her charge had caught her breath again. Then Jo used her free hand to take up a napkin from the unused tea tray. She patted the eyes and cheeks of the old woman. “You should have tea. We should all have tea.” And she shot an expectant look at Sarah Jane.
Sarah Jane realized with another slight pang that she was not going to return to the heavens tonight. Yet something had happened. The extraordinary had come. Just not the extraordinary she had expected. She hurried to the kitchen to make fresh tea while Jo Grant rocked the old woman and consoled her with a loving, happy tenderness that brought a blush to Sarah’s cheeks. Sarah felt responsible to be the most Merciful woman in view, and Jo Grant had just upstaged her, effortlessly.
“I could look at you forever,” Jo said. “I can’t believe you got here ahead of me. Nothing about you should surprise me.” She framed the woman’s face in her hands as Sarah brought in the tray of tea. “And you look so much better. Who’s been looking after you?”
The old woman still had tears in her eyes. “I don’t know. She gave me food. She helped me.” Those expressive eyes, wet but free from fear, fixed on Jo Grant, grateful, grieved, and waiting for whatever Jo would say next.
“Well it must be very high quality food,” Jo whispered, brushing her tears away. Jo looked up at Sarah. “You just met today?”
“Yes,” Sarah said. And now, Sarah gave the old woman a second, more searching look. For with her face animated with something other than fear, her eyes intelligent and responsive, the old woman suddenly seemed familiar to Sarah. And not even all that old.
Jo sat back on the sofa and helped the woman to sit back. “And now you want tea, my dear. I’ll help you.”
“Sarah Jane will pour, and we’ll find a bit of ice, and then we’ll all have tea.”
“She—Sarah Jane wanted my name, but I can’t remember,” the old woman said as Jo helped her sit back and stroked back her gray hair. Those eyes, now more aware and communicative, now did seem familiar to Sarah Jane.
Jo immediately took the woman’s hand in hers. “Of course you can’t remember. Not after what they did to you to wipe it out, my Puddleduck.” Jo turned her youthful and happy eyes up to Sarah Jane. “Ms. Smith, let me re-introduce Professor Liz Shaw to you. I believe you’ve met in the past.”
“That’s it!” the old woman said with sudden happiness. “That’s my name!” She glanced at Jo. “What did you say it was?”
“Liz Shaw,” Jo said kindly. “You’re Liz Shaw, my friend.”
“And who do we have to rescue?”
“The Brigadier,” Jo said. “Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart.” She threw a suddenly rueful glance at Sarah Jane. “And it won’t be easy.”