Above Her Feet
by Karen Pierce-Gonzalez
AS HEMMA THUNGER, I often spoke my mind. But as Sister Hemma I had to think before letting words fly out of my mouth. Or else, I had been warned, unattended, my utterings would run the risk of offending patrons of our small Northern Rhine monastery, one of many in the Holy Roman Empire. Such verbal assaults could lead to financial ruin and end our Benedictine way of life.
“These good men provide us with food and shelter,” Abbess Guda told me. “You must be grateful, not greedy. Remember they are all we have.”
“Mustn’t they be held to their word just as we are?” I replied. “A paltry amount of harvest grain—less than was promised—will not feed us through the winter.”
“In that case we shall have to learn to be content with less.” The short woman held up a hand to dismiss me. “Remember your vows of poverty and obedience.”
It took several years as a novitiate to ready me for the vows. Along with scrubbing floors and slopping pigs, I did my best to live by the covenant I had made. The prioress saw my efforts to do as instructed. That’s why, at twenty-two, I was the youngest woman to meet with the Abbot of the neighboring Kornlimunster Abbey to discuss helping with illuminated manuscripts. The new liturgical texts were destined for fledgling monasteries across the Rhine.
Despite the years of devotional practice, I scoffed at the opportunity. But said nothing publicly. I waited until I was alone with my new roommate Sister Richeza to say something.
“Me? With them?” I complained. “They care nothing for what we do here. How is it I should do their bidding?”
Richeza was the former queen of Silesia. Her braided dark hair was cut to befit her new station in life. She had fled to the Dalheim nunnery from her home near Poland after her husband was murdered by Augsburg mercenaries.
“It is not easy, but survival requires a cleverness of both tongue and mind.”
She arrived the year I became a nun. The weary middle-aged woman had been placed in my room, the only one with space enough for another cot. We quickly became friends.
“I’m named after Saint Hemma von Gork,” I boasted, eager to impress her. “A generous noblewoman who fed the poor and watched over childbirth and vision. Of course, I will call upon her only for vision.” I felt a red flush wave over my freckled face.
“I see.” Richeza’s hazel eyes slid sideways. A German princess, she had married a Silesian count. After a fatal fall from his horse, she sought comfort from his king.
“He had a soft spot for widows, but I wanted more than his sympathy.” She added that a few days after their wedding, she was at his side, suggesting how to handle matters of the court.
“He relied upon my senses about who could be trusted. I warned him about unrest in the West. Mounted knights were growing disloyal.” She clenched her jaw. “I barely escaped.”
As part of the crowned family, she had not taken vows, but was still addressed as one of our cloister. Refuge did not require full participation in Benedictine life if one gifted a fair share of their fortune.
Initially I gave her tips about monastic life. It was not hard once you got used to guarding your opinions. The rest was a matter of eating, dressing, speaking simply, and praying. All the time.
I relished our friendship. Younger than most of the other women, she did not fall asleep after vespers. We would sit at night, one candle between us, talking. It was on one of those winter evenings I confided in her my concerns about assisting the friars.
“I’ve heard from one of the older sisters whose hands grew stiff from the work that they take all the credit,” I said.
“My dear Hemma, you must find a way to manage them or else you may be spending all of your days with swine.”
I balked and yet, as we watched the candle’s shadow flickering on the wall before us, I felt the quivering of relief. No more buckets of slop. No more haggling with market butchers. Instead, I would tend garden terraces filled with plants and crush talc into pigment for decorated biblical scripts.
These illustrious volumes were commissioned by nobility whose images were inserted into scenes. Perhaps a rendering of the Baptism of Jesus or bystanders watching Our Lord turn water into wine.
These colorful drawn stories could be enjoyed by those who could not read. Like Frix, the woman who oversaw the kitchen of my childhood home. On special days, such as Martinmas when everyone celebrated Saint Martin who kindly shared his cloak with a freezing beggar, she would spend a few afternoon hours looking at the depictions in our Holy Book of Hours. I could read Latin, but I spent more time appreciating the ornate visual details. I thought they were exquisite. Their radiant light lifted off the page and seeped into my skin, warming my blood. When I learned from the Abbot that animal bones would be pulverized into ivory for flesh tones, cuttlefish ground up for sepia borders, and cinnabar crystals smashed into scarlet powder for initial capital letters, I shivered. Not because it sounded unpleasant. Turning such common materials into heavenly art was exciting. Not at all like my life before entering this house of service. Then, I had been expected to sit indoors needling fine threads through cloth. Adventures were confined to wistful stares out our drawing room window while hopeful suitors tried to win my affections.
“Dear Hemma, you will be able to oversee both my summer and winter households.” One suitor after another offered an array of riches and comforts.
“I don’t care for such displays,” I had replied. “How many houses does one really need?”
I had been agreeable as a child. Well-liked by my parents. Hearty appetite until smallpox spread throughout the house, claiming the life of my sweet young brother. Following his death, I was kept isolated so as not to contract any illness that might prohibit a betrothal. Lonely, I took to speaking to the afternoon shadows on the walls. They would dance for me.
“Faster, faster!” I would plead, chasing them until I grew impatient at the slowness of my own delicate body. They did not mind that I was agitated and on occasion grew still enough for me to touch before disappearing all together with the waning of day.
My parents thought it unwise for me to be alone so many hours of each day. So, they hosted small tournaments and feasts on our estate. I still had to stay inside because it was thought that smallpox traveled best in outdoor, open spaces. Several of the other young women and their mothers did the same.
“New imports of lace will arrive within the week,” one said.
Nodding, another announced, “I will need help unpacking the porcelain china my husband brought back with him from England.”
“I insist my children’s tutor speak to them in French. How else will they learn?”
Among them, there was little laughter and even less care about lifting up one’s soul.
I wanted to ask, “If you could have chosen a life for yourself, would you have chosen differently?” but didn’t. I had already been scolded by my mother to be gracious towards our guests.
She gave me an earful after watching so many young men depart empty-handed.
“Please Hemma, try to be more amiable. No suitor will want a wife who continually speaks her mind. You must think of alliances to ensure not only your future, but ours.”
My family grew tired of my refusals. These young men of notable families were nice. But it was not enough. I needed more to hope for than the assistance of a lady’s maid to get dressed.
At age fifteen, I began to watch the sisters who attended Sunday Mass each week walking closely together. Although they rarely said a word, they shared a familiarity of faith that made them glow. I envied their ease and singular sense of purpose. Reflective and restful. I came to learn that convent life offered a place for devotion, study, and contemplation. Not a duke or count to surrender my body to or children who may not survive the plagues sweeping across the land.
The prospect of a religious life was comforting. I was at ease with solitude. Unlike Richeza, who said she knew where she belonged when she married her king.
Her life now was very different. At first, roughly sewn robes, cold water baths, and meager portions of food were difficult to accept. I grew used to them and sometimes even forgot about the smoothness of fine fabrics and the mingled tastes of five-course meals. In their place I found peace in doing the Lord’s work. But for Richeza, such a sanctuary was far-removed from court socials, edible luxuries, and the fashionable dress that she relished. However, it was a haven away from those who sought to bring her ruling family to an end.
“I miss the bustling activity, the importance of being out there.” She told me with a sigh. “I am here without king or kingdom. And while I am bored, I am grateful, I suppose, to be alive.”
I was thankful, too. After being chosen to aid the monks, I was often left alone in our scriptorium to prepare dye tinctures. The color palettes delighted me. Greens, golds, and whites of extraordinary depths rose up from the skeletal frames of a rabbit’s foot or dried grasshopper’s skin. I spent hours meditating on how each small life gave way to divine art.
My favorite color was blue; indigo, smalt, or sunlit. At first, I was not allowed to even touch the richest blue of them all, lapis lazuli. I had to prove to the two scribes who came regularly to the monastery I would not waste such a costly mineral. They scrutinized the chips I was allowed to chisel and grind. Then they would nod to one another in assent.
One day they spoke with our Mother Superior about my care of the semi-precious stones kept in the locked box.
She told me they were pleased with my efficiency and that they would teach me to paint.
“Really?” I tried to remain calm. “I will do as they say.”
“You must. The Abbot assures me we will be paid handsomely.”
While she spoke, I imagined the blue gem. Its coolness. Sharp edges. I envisioned its travels along the Silk Road to reach Germany just as it had once reached ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Such a steeped history for a luxurious mineral; precious even in my upper-class world.
“The brothers tell me lapis comes from crystalline marble beds,” I whispered one night to Richeza as we readied for bed.
Richeza smiled. “Yes, I once received a jeweled bracelet of it from a merchant seeking my husband’s favor. I tried to take it with me when I fled.” She shrugged. “I have not seen beautiful jewels in a long time. Shall I come with you tomorrow to see for myself?” Being a part of the royal court, she had no tasks, so freely roamed about at her leisure, complaining of the dullness within our walls.
I agreed to take her with me that next morning. We quietly slipped into the stone room. I led her to a corner table set with a variety of rocks and plants. There were also chisels, hammers and grinding bowls. We stayed only a few moments. No one was allowed in this part of the convent without permission.
Glancing over at a large Bible placed near a window, I imagined myself with brush in hand, embellishing floor length gowns that graced the Virgin’s slender body. My efforts would protect her innocence.
A few days later, I had my chance. When one of the scribes left the room, the other, whose sight was poor, asked me to finish the hem of Mary’s flowing cape before his brethren returned. Hands trembling, I followed his instructions. Picking up the brush, I dipped its moistened tip into the small bowl of lapis ink and watched as brush hairs absorbed the color.
“Enough. Not too much or else it will drip onto the parchment.” The round man stood behind me. “There. Careful, careful.”
For several weeks, I did as he directed, slowly bringing the brush to several of Mary’s rich gold fabrics. When a drop fell off the brush as she sat with child in the manger, I gulped.
“Lord have mercy,” I murmured after it landed in the hem area.
"Steady.” The monk joined his fingertips together. “Now, put the brush tip down on the page. Gently.” He raised his voice. “Gently, I said! Or else the color will run.”
I did not breathe again until I had applied a few more brush strokes, staying within the hem lines so clearly drawn. First marked with minute pin pricks then retraced in delicately shaded granules, borders were lined with gold leaf, burnished until glossy and reflective. Decorative impressions were made on the gold before base colors were applied. I learned darker tones created volume. After the color was set, the borders would again be outlined.
I loved watching the folds of Mary’s robes appear out of thin air. The Blessed Mother’s ascent looked regal. Moved, I would sometimes gently touch an already finished portion of the gown without the monk noticing. My fingertip absorbed some of the blue, connecting me to her in the hallowed space between us.
“All right, put the brush down,” the monk whispered when his brother returned to the room. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Right now?” I asked. “May I have a moment more? Perhaps another I can start?” He shook his head. Once I stepped out of the way he leaned over the sheet, picked up a smaller brush and dipping it into black ink, quickly repainted a letter. When all of the sections were complete, he scribbled his own name at the end of the goat skin parchment.
I glared at the top of his balding head. He had no right. He was not the only one to make this book beautiful, to reverently adorn the Mother of God and the Holy Family. My face grew hot. I wanted to say something but didn’t know what. Then the second monk came over and commented, “Well done” before slapping the older brother on the back.
Moments later I finally found my words. “I am grateful you let me do your—” But the short-sighted monk interrupted me.
“This is all for today,” he said. “You may go.”
I kept the rest of the thought to myself. Selfish man. God made his eyes weak for a reason. How dare he pretend I did not also infuse them with life!
That’s when I began to pilfer small bits of the rare blue mineral. Tiny chips and chunks every day wouldn’t be noticed. I tucked them neatly into my mouth where they stayed only until I returned to my room. There I hid them beneath the foot of my straw filled mattress. Each night for several weeks, after I was sure Richeza was asleep, I would put a piece in my mouth and roll it around before taking it into my body, like a communion wafer.
I knew it was wrong. I prayed for forgiveness but continued to steal. Not long after I started eating them, I began to feel sluggish. Could not stand on my feet for long periods of time. Had to sleep more than usual and so was not able to meet with the priests as often as needed.
The Abbot asked for more assistance. Richeza volunteered.
“You can do it for me until I am better,” I whimpered one evening to my friend.
“Of course.” Richeza pumiced her hands to keep them smooth. “This way they will miss your fine skills. They will see how valuable you are and then be content with whatever help you can give. We must teach these friars to appreciate you.”
She knew more about such matters than I did.
As the days wore on, the weight of having stolen grew heavier. I finally told Richeza.
“What?” Her mouth fell open. “Hemma, put it back.”
“I did.” My voice quickened as I lifted the bedding to show her there was no lapis.
I continued to weaken. A doctor summoned to my bed, smelled my breath and claimed, “Your blood is not clear.”
He leeched my arms but I never regained my full strength. After a month I was able to move about. I had not been near the locked box for quite some time and grew anxious when the nunnery’s bookkeeper reported a loss of lapis. Paid for by the weight, it was no longer providing enough—as it once had—to complete a certain number of dressings, mantels, and crowns, according to the monks. The tall woman grew suspicious after reviewing the purchase ledger. When questioned, I said I did not know any lapis was missing.
“Maybe the brothers are getting sloppy, using too much for their own glory.”
“That is unlikely.” Abbess Guda shook her head. “We cannot accuse them of such deeds.”
As I told Richeza about this, she cast her eyes upwards but said nothing. I returned from chapel the following afternoon to find my mattress torn apart.
A few lapis nuggets had been placed in it. There was no question who had done it.
That same day my royal friend moved to a room of her own built near the garden.
Although I complained, I was no longer permitted to be near the library or the plant garden. I was not allowed to speak to anyone for a month and returned to slopping the pigs—my only task besides worship.
The abbey mother suggested I spend more time on my knees.
I did as was told. It grated against every nerve in my body.
One day as I finished my chores, I noticed the rear door to the scriptorium was ajar. Looking both ways and seeing no one, I put the bucket down and stepped into the room. I took in the fresh smell of pastes and leaned against the wall.
The scents of powder and oil mixes filled the air. My fingers twitched with the memory of smooth dust. I stared at the brushes waiting to be moistened with lapis. My heart pounded as I walked over to the table upon which lay an open volume. I lit a candle to better see and with one fingertip, traced the shiny letters, exalted halos, and draping garments. All now forbidden to me.
I thought of how Richeza had cheated me. Tears filled my eyes. A few fell onto the parchment.
I quickly blew on them, hoping to push the saltwater away before any damage had been done. But I was too late. It had already bled into the text blurring a few letters.
“Mother Mary save me,” I cried. A chill passed through me. My face was only inches away from an image of Mary cradling the sweet baby Jesus. Trembling, I kissed her covering. Overwhelmed by the thought of no longer sheathing her saintly body, I bared my teeth and bit into the hem right above her bare feet. I tore off a section of the goat-skin page. Then bit again, stuffing both into my mouth where they grew limp with saliva.
I flung my arms, knocking the candle over. Thin streams of liquid wax flowed across the words and pictures. Flames quickly followed. I fled into the kitchen and tried to swallow the strips of parchment but began to choke. Now a ball, they were stuck in my throat. As I drank water to force them down, I heard my sisters scream:
Huddled in the corner near the stove, I struggled to catch my breath as the precious manuscripts burned.
I fainted, unaware of the nuns who found me. They carried me to my bed and stayed by my side until the next day; their sweet hymns pulling me from sleep. I slowly opened my eyes to see the abbess standing at the foot of the bed.
“Bless the Lord you are still with us.”
“The books, are they...?” I started to sit up.
She held out a hand, telling me to rest, then cleared her throat. “Let us pray, sisters. We have lost the patrons’ orders.” Abbess Guda stared at me. I lowered my eyes then scowled at Richeza who raised her eyes to the ceiling.
“It’s your fault!” I yelled, pointing to her.
I sat up and started wheezing. Shreds of the holy paper moved back up my throat. Heaving, I could not bring them all the way up. Soggy fragments of the Blessed Virgin’s treasured lapis-hemmed robe smothered my cries for help.
Karen Pierce Gonzalez’s writing has appeared in Novelty, Postcard Poems and Prose, Potato Soup Journal, San Francisco Magazine, Tiny Thimble Magazine, Twist in Time, Visual Verse, and other publications. A former journalist and folklore columnist, she is also an artist who works with bark, pastels, fibers, and, when lucky, salmon leather.
© 2020 Karen Pierce-Gonzalez