**content warning: mention of death and murder**
There was a knock on the door. I had known it was coming; perhaps not now, not this minute or this afternoon, but soon.
Had it been tentative? Sullen and angry, as mine had been? Brisk and business-like? I couldn't tell.
When I opened the door, the novice on the threshold was even younger than I'd expected. A boy still, skinny and over-tall, with his habit flapping around his bony shins. Nervous, too, from the way his voice shook.
I nodded, biting back a sarcastic demand to know who else he would find down here. The lad was already skittish enough.
He sat when I gestured to a stool, his arms hanging awkwardly by his knees. He set his back to the wall and looked methodically round the room: bare plaster, plain wooden furniture, books with covers worn shiny from handling. His eyes lingered in the empty spaces, and his hunched shoulders slowly began to relax.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" I offered. He nodded, head jangling on his neck.
I watched him, covertly, while I waited for the water to boil. Whatever had caused him to be sent down here, it was not punishment.
I have learned to love my quiet duties, but it took many years. As a young man I grew too fast, reached too far, and was sent here as an exile. I arrived angry, and resented it bitterly as I rote-learned the story for each niche in the shrine.
I set the tea beside the boy they had sent me, and returned to my favourite chair. The steam coiled and curled from the cup in my hands.
"Would you like to tell me your name?"
"Yes," he gulped. He took a mouthful of tea, and winced at his haste as it scalded his tongue. "Timothy," he added, as an afterthought.
I sipped from my cup, enjoying the silence in my little domain, enjoying the smoky flavour of the tea. Timothy looked everywhere but at me, knuckles almost white around his teacup. How did he feel about his new role?
I had expected he might arrive burning with questions; I had imagined he might arrive fierce and bristling with determination not to ask. But this? This wariness was unexpected. Timothy slurped his tea, and gazed about him; he seemed to be untensing a little further with each swallow.
"Were you told, Timothy, what to expect down here?"
"Does spending time alone bother you?"
I don't think he saw my eyebrows shoot up in surprise. Solitude doesn't bother me—not any more—but his immediate rebuttal was final and decisive. It was almost the reflex of a failed love affair, a determination to bury himself.
"Do you enjoy time alone?"
He paused before answering, his right leg bouncing an uneven rhythm on the tiled floor. "I find people difficult. I like silence."
I smiled. Perhaps—sometimes—our superiors choose wisely.
"Do you have a good memory?"
Timothy closed his eyes, suddenly still.
"The chair on my left's got a cloth back with twelve red stripes, and eleven white ones. There's a small, brown stain on the fifth white stripe, close to the edge. The arms are worn, a bit more so on the right, and there's a V-shaped dent where the left arm joins the upright."
There is. There has been since I learned what was expected of me, and threw the chair across the room.
"Timothy, I think you will do well down here."
His eyes flew open, a surprised and grateful smile on his lips. We finished our tea in silence.
I had several speeches prepared. The conciliatory, the scholarly, even the defensive; none seemed appropriate now. I searched my heart, and found the words I had been forced to learn decades ago.
When I looked at Timothy his eyes flinched away, so I addressed the recitation to the teapot.
"The responsibilities of the role are threefold. Firstly, there are the mundane tasks: cleaning, maintenance, and repair. Secondly, the Keeper must know the stories. Each and every niche has its history, and they must be preserved intact. Lastly, we honour the memory of the Failed. Each and every one of them was a person. They deserve our love—even those who refused. Especially those who refused. Do you understand?"
It could have been defiant; instead, it was a simple statement.
I gestured to the door, and Timothy lurched to his feet. I drew in a slow breath before grasping the handle. Long years of meditation had brought me understanding and reverence.
The door opened into a narrow room with niches carved at intervals along one wall. In some there were statues, in others paintings. A few held scraps of cloth, or other ephemera.
The first niche was empty.
"We do not know her name. We do not know where she lived. We only know that she fled in terror."
I think, of all the Failed, it was this woman I felt for most strongly. Nameless, faceless, known only for her Failure. But such a human failure! She didn't refuse—she just ran, scared. For some niches I had learned a long and detailed history. For this one—the first—there was almost nothing: there was a woman, and she was scared.
Timothy stared into the empty alcove.
"I'm sorry," I said. "But we don't know any more."
I moved to the next niche in the wall. It held a piece of cloth, carefully folded.
"Part of her scarf," I explained. "We still don't know her name. We only know her as Joel's daughter. She said no."
I remembered how I'd wrestled with her story. Once I'd accepted my role down here, and put aside my indignation at being assigned to this lonely, dead-end job, I became angry all over again at her refusal. How could she?
It took me years to understand how she must have felt.
I was eager that Timothy should not judge her too harshly—even though I knew he would have to make his peace with each one of them on his own terms.
"She had her reasons," I said and he nodded blankly.
We walked along the room, and I introduced him briefly to the occupant of each niche; later I would fill in the details. This one was scared of her husband. This one asked questions and could not believe the answers. This one dismissed it as a trick of the light.
This one said yes, but was killed by her family for bringing them into disrepute. In time, I would show Timothy how to use the softest feathers to dust the few bones that lie in the niche. Our burden was the memory; our joy was the understanding. But one must also take care of the practical details.
We worked our way along, slowly, until we reached the final niche. In it was a painted panel, a young woman with her head tipped back in laughter. She was among those for whom I felt the greatest compassion—she deserved greater honour than to be listed among the Failed.
"She died in childbirth," I said, turning away from the portrait.
"She died?" echoed Timothy.
"The child died, too. Obviously."
He had no reply.
We turned back towards the room with the striped chair—stained and dented—and the teapot. This had been my world for so long, I had almost forgotten there was anything else. The Failed had been my friends, my counsellors, my guidance.
I eyed Timothy as he walked beside me. Would he care for them, respect them, know them as I had done? His face was almost expressionless, though he turned towards each niche as we passed it as if looking for answers.
I made more tea, waited for him to speak, and eventually broke the silence myself.
"Do you have any questions?"
He looked down, tugging at his sleeves, and shook his head, then snapped his eyes briefly to mine.
"Yes. Who are these people?"
"They are the Failed. The women who preceded Mary."
He looked at me expectantly. Did they tell him nothing?
"Before he appeared to Mary, the Archangel Gabriel had announced to many women that they would bear the Son of God. Down here, we keep faith with the memories of the women who did not become the Mother of Our Lord. We honour each and every one of them with reverence, and with love and understanding."
"Even though they made the wrong choice?"
"They made different choices. And some Failed through no fault of their own. But we remember them all. That is your task."
Timothy looked around the small room, and at the door to the shrine.
"The first," he said, "was terrified by what she was asked, and she ran away. I know what that feels like. The second was Joel's daughter, and she said no..."
I closed my eyes, and listened to his litany.
About the Author
Elizabeth Guilt lives in London, UK, where history lurks alongside plate glass office buildings and stories spring out of the street names. She has had fiction published in Luna Station Quarterly, All Worlds Wayfarer, and Flash Fiction Magazine. You can find her at https://www.elizabethguilt.com or on Twitter as @elizabethguilt.