Far off the bell rang from the bell tower; Sister Francis paused her digging; held the spade in mid air as if waiting for the final toll. Sister Clare sat gazing down at the hole the other had dug for the burial of Sister Joan.
The sky was darkening; winter was creeping over the burial ground like a black dog. Sister Francis sliced the spade into the ground again; heaved out more soil. Sweat leaked into her armpit, along her back beneath the black habit, causing it to stick heavily.
The other watched her hands brought together in prayer, her head slightly to one side as if she were seeking a sound far away over the hills and lands. Silence seeped into them like the damp air, Sister Joan would be lying there at dawn, her placed unmarked except for a dull wooden cross.
Sister Francis sighed and paused. She offered the spade to the other who sat gazing at the hole. The other rose and taking the spade thrust it into the ground with raw energy, while the other stood watching the sun setting over by the trees in the distant. The sound of spade on earth echoed about them; the damp air clung to Sister Francis; mingled with her sweat. She mopped her brow; wiped her hands on her working apron. She walked a few paces off; stood looking over the burial ground at the other crosses stretching as far as the enclosure wall. Gone now, these. Rested. Duty done. Dust to dust. The high and the low, the good and not so good, saints and sinners.
Sister Clare dug energetically; heaved the heavy clods to one side. She stopped momentarily to watch Sister Francis standing a few yards away gazing at the crosses in deep thought. She had spoken to Sister Joan only the night before after Vespers; they had laughed merrily over some incident in the kitchen, now gone. Dead. As if it had never been. Sometimes loneliness crept into her and despite God being near and at her side she missed human company; missed the frailty of humanness; the touch of flesh on flesh; the word heard and whispered. She sighed and returned to her digging.
Sister Francis looked back at the convent, the bell tower tall and solid, and the lights already on in the windows. She sensed the blisters on her fingers and palms; felt the ache in her back, the tiredness in her limbs. God bless, Mother Abbess said at None Office, the rested sister. Blessed and at rest. Gone. The bell tolled again.
Sister Clare stopped; gazed at the bell tower. Sister Francis nodded; walked towards the other nun. For a few moments, they stood gazing at each other. Then looking about them quickly, they touched hands, brushed lips and then walked slowly back towards the convent and the echoing bell, the voice of God and the cold stiff body of Sister Joan alone and still in the snow white chapel.