She could hear a clicking of claws along the tiled floor of the nave. Someone must have left the door open after evensong. Easy to do; the door is heavy and difficult to pull tight. She rises from her narrow bed to look through the squint, the narrow opening that allows her to view the sanctuary during mass.
There is a fox in the church. A vixen, her red fur shot with grey. She is too thin—the animal's ribs show plainly. She has gone as far as the three pillars that separate the nave from the chancel, sniffs around the base of one of the pillars. What does she smell? The odour of sanctification? Has she detected the relics of Saint Balthild—a desiccated toe, a fragment of skull, hidden within the narrow pillar? Certainly not enough for a meal. The vixen looks up, looks at the back wall of the church, suddenly, sharply. She knows she is being watched.
She can't call anyone. The church is too isolated. And she doubts how far her thin voice surrounded by four stone walls could even travel. There is nothing to be done. She can only watch. And pray. Thank goodness it is only a fox. What if thieves had come and helped themselves to the church's humble treasures—the silver chalice, the small gold cross Father Ambrose swears came from Rome?
The fox sniffs around each pillar in turn and then circles back to the first one, Saint Balthild's resting place. She squats down onto her haunches and takes a shit.
The anchoress, watching from her cell alone, laughs.
Her cell hugs the little stone church. It is spare but comfortable. She has a narrow cot along one wall, a small fireplace on another, with firewood stacked neatly beside it. The earthen floor is softened by woven rush mats that give off a summer sweetness when she treads on it. She has her own little flint and tinderbox to light the oil lamp, a book of Hours and a book of Rules. A solitary bee in a solitary hive. Her day is broken into prayer and study and work. She mends Father Ambrose's shirts or makes tunics for the poorer families of the parish.
She has a single wall hanging over the cell's only door. It helps with the draughts. It helps her forget about the nails holding the door closed behind it, of the last words she heard before they were hammered in, “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.” Timor mortis conturbat me.
The hanging is one she embroidered. The image is from Genesis, Adam and Eve in the Garden. She had difficulty with the people, but the trees, the flowers, the creatures of the ground and the birds of the air she picked out in detail. Sometimes, when she rises in the darkness for Matins or Lauds, the small light offered by her lamp seems to animate the cloth. Swallows course across the dome of the sky, shrews and rabbits scurry through the green and yellow undergrowth.
When she kneels beneath the simple cross affixed on the wall above her squint, knees fitting into the gentle grooves of the wooden stool, she can see glimmers from the candlelight. After mass sometimes the smoke from the candles rises and spreads like a veil. Beyond the veil the larger cross, the one from Rome. It looks encrusted with rubies, but it is only the sunlight filtering through the stained glass that makes it look so.
Usually the silence is wide. It is gracious. It receives the birdsong, the rustling of leaves and grasses, rain when it falls on the roof tiles, the choir's reedy voices, the wagons rumbling over the rutted track. It embraces them. It becomes silence.
The only window to the outside world is supposed to be too high for her to see out. Or for others to see in. But if she stands on her bed, her toes balanced on its wooden frame, she can peel back the cotton fabric tacked across its opening and see the broad green track. There it lies, the track that diverges from the Icnal Way, separating the field from the woods, that brought her here from her father's house. Strange that this thing, this accident of landscape and travellers' feet enticed her like a ribbon-seller at market. Beckoned and flirted along hilltops and down valleys. It is such a still, unmoving thing now. There it lies, as still as she lies upon her bed at night.
She cannot see the yew whose shadow falls over the track, though she can see the red berries it drips, attracting birds and children with their sweetness. The only part of the tree that isn't poisonous. The yew, older than the church itself, marks a meeting place, they say, for the people who lived here even before the Romans. Weapons are not allowed in its shade so it has always been a place of safety. The shadows from its long, pendulous branches move like weeds under water, slowly, slowly, sadly.
She prays for her mother's soul as she was instructed to do. She wonders if her father is still living. She prays for his soul as well, in case he is not. She prays for the villagers, that they may be preserved from sickness, that all their babes are delivered safe and well. She prays for the crops and as she prays she can see the barley seeds splitting, unfurling, sending roots deeper into the earth and shoots into the sky. She prays for the weather, for the wind that drives clouds and cold across the sky. For the swallows that swoop and circle, the plate-faced owls at dusk. Bees and beetles and butterflies. Twitchy-nosed rabbits and mice, and all creatures that burrow in the ground. She prays for all these things. Sometimes she wonders if she is praying to these things.
A man’s voice. A stranger. He is under her window, talking with Father Ambrose, and when it isn't obscured by the wind rising like waves through the trees, she hears him. A man who would not be blown away in a storm. Father Ambrose speaks of Saint Bathild and her miracles. Then he speaks of herself, another woman immured. He speaks of her as if she is his property, his source of miracles, his pet.
The stranger's reply is almost indecipherable, as if he is speaking English with a mouth full of pebbles. The vowels are too rounded, the consonants rise up like thistles in all the wrong places.
She sees him on Sunday as he assists Father Ambrose with the service. He leads the meagre congregation in prayer. He has the stocky build of a farmer.
He kneels under her squint and asks her to pray for him.
“I am the first to visit you. But others will come. They will be moved by your piety.”
“I am not a saint.”
“And yet you have blessed me.”
Instead of answering, he tells her of his travels, of the women in the desert who also live alone, who also dedicated themselves to God. But she does not feel withdrawn from anything. The world still assails her.
He tells her of the plague that spread through Rome, through Constantinople and Jerusalem. Everywhere God is angry, he says. But not here, not in this land.
Maybe He is, she wants to say. One voice alone is a tyrant. But here He is only one voice among many and there are so many gods.
“How did you come to be here?" he asks.
“My father sent me.” I am his silence, she thinks, his prayers and contemplation. He can run the business, oversee the lands and the household, because of me. She doesn't say that a sickly child with a split and twisted lip and overly-prominent front teeth, grown into an ugly daughter, was not a difficult sacrifice to make.
The jackdaws shout into the sky.
Mostly she eats pottage made from cabbage and onion and leeks. Sometimes Mary flavours it with thyme or rosemary, thickens it with barley. Plums and medlars in late summer. Bread and honey. Once Mary brought her rabbit in a stew. She stirred in the thick skin congealed over the top. It was barely warm after travelling so far from her kitchen. The taste, the texture of flesh was strange after long abstinence. She forced herself to chew, forced herself to swallow. For three days after, her belly was in spasms. She was hot and clammy at once, curled on the floor next to her bed. In her delirium she was troubled by foxes and hares; they chased and chased her around the church. The hares, stretched ears and protruding yellow teeth, grotesque, frightening.
Mary's visits also bring news. As she passes a basket of food through the narrow opening, or takes away a chamber pot, she always has some tidbit to share. The storm that destroyed the pea crops. Birds were killed and branches knocked off trees by hailstones as big as hens' eggs. The stranger who boasted he was a giant-killer and had the leg bone of a giant as proof and charged a penny to see it. But someone said it was an ox-bone and though the man denied it, he did not stay in the village long. A thief, known by his clipped ear, was hanged. Father Ambrose prayed for him, but said he still had to answer for his crime on earth.
She clips her hair short whenever it becomes long enough to twirl around her finger. The clumps that fall on her lap, that she collects and places on the windowsill for the birds to use in their nests, are more grey than brown now, stiff, almost brittle.
Her knees have begun to ache when rain is coming. Her knuckles swell in the cold and she can no longer hold her needle. She sleeps less.
Just as he said they would, the pilgrims come. At first, it is only a trickle, then a torrent. They converge on the Icnal Way, on the green track to Saint Balthild's, wearing their many badges, souvenirs of other pilgrimages, broadcasting their adventures or giving advice on the best roads, the cleanest and cheapest inns.
One claims she cured his blindness. Another her lameness. Stories of withered limbs restored, barren wombs made fertile. How ridiculous they are. These pilgrims, if they can't have a badge, must at least have a miracle. Of course she has done nothing but pray. Of course they believe what they want to believe.
She keeps the little door closed now. Mary's daughter has to knock when she comes with food, with linen. It is harder and harder to find her silence.
Thick plumes of pearly smoke come up from the village every day.
And more come. God must be angry in this land too now, for there is a contagion spreading through the village. A putrid fever, a cough. Death is swift and not merciful. She can hear on the wind the bell tolling at the monastery three miles away. Saint Bathild's has no bell. But it has lamentations and prayers and hymns. It has the sound of a shovel hitting earth, shifting the ground. Father Ambrose says the cemetery sprouts graves like dandelions. For a while the church, and he, are busier than ever.
Then it isn't. The pilgrims no longer come. Mary's daughter no longer stops to chat. The church feels hollow. Her cell is too warm.
The prayers are falling away. She can no longer hold the words. Only the curlews piping somewhere over the downs. Only the crickets' song and the rising and falling of tides in the yew's long branches. She's troubled; she begs God's forgiveness. God or her father. Both of them. Neither.
She slips to her knees at the appointed hours, her prayer book open to the correct page. Her body obedient, while her soul, it seems, flies up and out of the tiny cell, sweeps through the wide sky like a spring wind. When she neglects to take the Eucharist from the priest through the small window, he hisses, "Are you sick? Are you dead?"
If she isn't there to pray for her mother's soul, at her grieving father's request, to pray for the village, their crops, then why is she there? What is a woman who chooses to be alone?
A monstrous thing.
Mary's daughter—or is it her granddaughter now?—brings her fresh linens with a sprig of lavender tied to the top coverlet. All morning she contemplates its many flowers, like eyes gazing all around itself. She imagines what it sees when it looks around the whitewashed walls, what it remembers of fields upon fields of fellow blooms. The tickling scurry of ants or beetles up its stem. The penetration of busybody bees. Rabbits bound through its patch, their noses wrinkle and flare. They stop to nibble at its sweetness.
And everything she has prayed for, everything she has prayed to, is with her now. The silence is full of songs. They are sung by her mother, sister, daughter, the sun and moon, the trees pushing up to the sky, the birds swooping down to the earth.
And it is closer to me than I am to myself.
The stone walls of her cell, two halves of an eggshell, split open.
A blackbird is sounding out the dawn.
The dew is heavy on the grass by the church wall, but grey-brown fur protects her from the damp. She lifts her head, her nose twitching as she tests the cool air for its trails of scent. The church still lies in shadow but unmistakably the sun is rising on the land.
What is a hare that chooses to be alone?
One of God's many creatures.
She nibbles on a stalk of long grass, then, as the shadow of an owl darkens the grass, hops into the shade of a tree and out of sight.
Jennifer Falkner is an award-winning short story writer from Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Agnes and True, The Stonecoast Review, and Historia Magazine. In 2018, she received first and second prize in the HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition.
© 2020 Jennifer Falkner