*Some names have been changed
The evening we met Hilda was gray and full of shadows. Her hands were thrust deep into the pockets of an ankle-length trench coat, as she stepped onto the cobblestone street. We stopped her by the streetlamp and asked if she believed in God.
“Of course. God is wonderful!” Her broad and open face dwarfed her withered figure.
I pulled out a Book of Mormon from the pocket of my wax jacket. She accepted the book only after we assured her it was free. Her breath smelled of alcohol and onion pie.
I’d arrived in Llandudno, Wales, about three months earlier, straight off the plane from home. It was the autumn of 1995, and as a Mormon missionary, I’d encountered strange circumstances, but nothing to prepare me for the loneliness I was about to witness. Loneliness so haunting it cried like seagulls on the shoreline.
At dawn in this idyllic town, the seagulls yapped on the beach of the Irish Sea. I’d hear their cries in my dreams during that last precious hour before the alarm sounded, and we fell on our knees to recite scripture and say morning prayers. I’d think of them flying free for days at a time on the air currents above the waves. When they gathered on the gray beaches, they faced the wind for a quick takeoff. Their sharp and persistent cries reminded me of the first waking moments as a missionary. The moment when the fear, loneliness, joy, and love surged under my skin.
My companion, Sister Herreman, and I began visiting Hilda every day. She’d open her door with a grandiose sweep of her arm. Her voice choking on a squeal, “Come in! Come in! I’m so thrilled you would come see me.”
She oozed with interest at first, even asking to join the church during our first visit. We set a baptismal date and started teaching her the gospel. We should have known it was all too smooth, too golden to be true. But for a time, we had news to report to the Elders. Someone to fill the spaces on our weekly schedule. Someone to save.
When we explained our mode of baptism as complete immersion, Hilda protested in the typical phobic manner. “No, no. I couldn’t do it. I’m deeply afraid of water.” She bore down on the word deeply as if the word alone would save her from all earthy suffering.
“That’s ok, Hilda,” we soothed. “We believe in following Jesus Christ’s example. We will help you.”
Many people expressed some fear of water. But as in other cases, we assumed it wouldn’t stop her in the end.
Hilda lived in contrasts of light. I preferred visiting her in the daytime when the picture window on the north wall of her flat let in streams of sunshine It rested on her gray head as she worked a crossword puzzle while we taught her about resurrection, prophets, principles. Sometimes the veiled sun only canvassed the floor beneath the window and didn’t reach the center of the room where we sat. When winter darkness descended around four in the afternoon, the harsh light bulb over the kitchenette did little to illuminate the sparse room. In the gloom, I thought of seagulls seeing infrared color and soaring under a violet sky.
Hilda accepted everything as if we were serving her rapture and peace on an earthenware platter. Her dialogue flowed sticky and false. Oh yes, that’s lovely. Of course, I believe it. Yes, I understand what Jesus did for me.
But one evening, Hilda opened the door and shuffled back to her folding chair without a word. A scratchy wool blanket cloaked her shoulders, and the room held a heaviness like tapestries draped over old furniture. She slumped with a cigarette in her trembling fingers. The volume on the TV was low and menacing.
“Hiya Hilda, you alright?”
Her voice was cold. “Did I ever tell you I have two sons?”
We shed our coats and backpacks. “No. We didn’t know.”
“They never come to see me. They never help me. I have no money.”
Sister Herreman and I glanced at each other. From past missionary experiences, we recognized the foreboding feeling, both tender and dreadful.
“Hilda,” Sister Herreman ventured, “are you ok?”
“I will never, ever enter a church again in my life. I will never, ever pray again. I hate God.” Her eyes, dark pits of rage, dithered against her transparent skin. “My husband, Ray, died two years ago. I wish someone”—she fought to bring the cigarette to her ash-white lips—“would tell me what I did. They blame me for it. They blame me for Ray’s death. My own sons accuse me.”
She pushed herself out of the chair, a flimsy, wavering body of ninety pounds. It was as if she contained the force of the world’s suffering in the jerky movements of her frame. She walked to the door. “I hate God. I will never enter your church. I will kill myself first.” Her voice scraped with hatred. Her bony fingers reached for the door handle. “Get out.”
We struggled on our backpacks and approached the door. “We’ll come back later. Hilda? Ok?”
In the hall, I turned back to catch Hilda’s face for an instant before the door slammed shut. A face dark, walleyed, cavernous. We hesitated in the hallway of the building, the tired sunlight hovering in the cracks around the front door. Then we pushed out the door and stepped onto the cobblestone street
I never wanted to go back. But predictively, the Elders asked us to return. They chalked up Hilda’s schizoid behavior as cold feet about baptism. I found that explanation ridiculous.
“But she was disturbed. I’m not sure how she will react if we show up again. She made it pretty clear that she didn’t want anything to do with us or the church.”
“Go back,” Elder Newton repeated. “Remember to exercise faith, Sister Ott.”
Did my faith have the power to change the outcome of a situation? To change the direction of another person’s life?
Hilda answered the door with the familiar squeal of joy. “Hiya! My dearest friends in the entire world. Please come in. I’ve been hoping you would come by. Can I get you something to drink? I hope you don’t mind if I smoke?”
Foolish in our relief, we eased into the chairs, sensing a sudden movement might send Hilda sprawling into her alter ego. We pretended the earlier fiasco never happened, lacquering the memory as trivial and cryptic. I doubted Hilda remembered any of it.
“Hilda,” I risked. “Tonight, we need to talk to you about your smoking.”
“Oh yes. Such a terrible habit. I’ll quit right now. Tonight.”
And to show her determination, Hilda rubbed her cigarette out in the pewter ash tray next to the TV. Leaning back, she gazed at us like Mother Teresa enduring the heat of the African sun. “I will do whatever it takes to be baptized.”
From then on, it was anyone’s guess as to how we would find Hilda. She became a vase of brittle clay that might crumble if we made the wrong move. In the morning, she would flatter and bleed platitudes of praise. That same evening, her face was rancid with darkness as she ranted against God. Then we started experiencing the change firsthand.
“Please come in my lovely friends,” she would say. “Have a seat. I wish I had something for you to drink.”
Several minutes later, right smack dab in our discussion about the spirit world, her luster evaporated before our eyes. She’d mention her sons. How they never visited her, never helped her with money. Her face crumbled like seaweed in the sun.
“They blame me for Ray’s death. But the strange thing is I don’t remember Ray dying. I can’t remember anything about it.”
“You don’t remember your husband dying?” Sister Herreman said, her voice flat and unmoved.
“No, I can’t remember,” she monotoned as if in a trance. “I will never, ever enter a church again.”
We always left when she started with her “never evers.”
We picked Hilda up for her baptism on a Saturday morning. My chest constricted with the pressure to see a baptism through to the end. If we failed, our lack of faith might be blamed. In theory, I knew faith could never usurp free will. But at times like this, faith and agency no longer seemed juxtaposed as harmonious principles of the gospel. They sideswiped one another. My conviction about baptism crashed against Hilda’s cliff of ambivalence.
She’d gotten into the car willingly, but afterward, everything felt forced, like a well-intentioned intervention gone wrong.
“Come on, it’s not bad,” we tried. “The water’s not scary. You’ll feel good afterward.”
“No. I don’t think I will.” Hilda looked out the car window and beneath her skin, there seemed to be an undertow of dark emotion. She lacked the ability to make connections as if she was alone without dreams or history.
In a blur, we arrived at the church and somehow got Hilda changed into a pair of white trousers with an elastic waist. She made no fuss about following Elder Williams down the tiled steps into the water. Wraith-like, she took Elder Williams arm while he demonstrated how to use her other hand to plug her nose. He raised his right hand and uttered the baptismal prayer. Bringing his hand down on her back, he braced to help her back into the water.
Time stalled and thickened like hazy heat waves on cement. Hilda remained rooted, stiff, and unyielding to the gentle pushes of Elder Williams against her arm.
“Just bend your knees a little, I’ve got you. I’ll bring you right back up, I promise.”
The seconds ached forward but Hilda would not give way to Elder Williams’ coaxing. Sister Herreman and I stood speechless in the hallway in front of the font. Our zone leader, Elder Nickels, moved to the stairs, muttering encouraging words and ideas at Hilda.
“It will be only a second under water. You won’t notice it. Would it be easier if we went forward, Hilda?”
Elder Williams tried guiding Hilda forward as if he hoped her body might twist into a graceful dive. There seemed to be no life in her face now, only empty eyes staring at the accordion curtain. The font, Hilda, the Elders—it all seemed to blend into a tunnel of whiteness. Elder Nickels started entering the font. The water surged around his feet, ruining his suit.
Then Hilda screamed. The harshness of the sound ricocheted off the walls and entered the lifeblood of the empty rooms. Life washed through Hilda’s eyes as they melted into the raging pits we had come to dread. “Let me go home,” she hissed. A sorrow rose into the air around us. I knew Hilda no longer cared, if she ever had, about promised blessings. She only cared about leaving the water and smoking a cigarette.
Elder Nickels stood for a moment ankle deep in water. Then he stepped back up the stairs with empathy carried in his shoulders. “Ok, Hilda. Let’s get you home.”
We rushed into the restroom. Hilda stood in her bra by the sink. The wet trousers clung to her legs. She looked like a survivor of a concentration camp as she reached a bony hand into her bag and pulled out a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here,” I rasped. “Not in the church!”
Ignoring my pleas, she stared empty-eyed out the frosted window, her fingers trembling to bring the lighter to the cigarette in her mouth. She blew the smoke out in deluded wisps, as if hoping to rid herself of all thought and remembrance. She seemed a fossil, or a relic.
Later, Elder Williams lamented, “I should have just dunked her. Done it before she knew what was happening.”
Baptism at any cost?
No. I am grateful Hilda’s agency, fallible though it might have been, prevailed in the warm water in 1995. It submerged our desires beneath its surface. I could not heal her mind or free her from her addictions. I could not transfer my testimony into her heart or provide for her financial needs. I could not force baptism and all its blessings upon her. I could not unpack her loneliness into feasible bundles. She coped with her life by whimsical daydreams or dark anger. How much of her life was in her power, I will never know. Yet her volition endured in a white-walled font and I felt the joy of it, the preciousness of it, even among the bare bones of disappointment.
My faith harmonizing with the seagull-like cries of her free will.
I saw Hilda on the street weeks after we’d lost contact and right before I left Llandudno for good. She passed us along main street—handkerchiefed, bent forward, lugging an oversized bag over her shoulder. For a moment, the sound of seagulls tugged memory to the surface. An unconscious reflex cast my eyes immediately to the ground to avoid an awkward greeting. But not before I caught the stormy eyes, the thin frame hobbling down the street, the hands trembling for the nicotine. A face that might, at a moment’s notice, soften and smile and invite us in from the cold.