BY C E SYMONS
The sun at this time of year is low. It slants through the narrow window into the cell, charting her hours with the movement of its light. Every day, she watches its passage. Today, she has moved her stool a few inches so that the sun falls on her body, clothed in its dark habit. She rolls back the sleeves, lets her pale skin soak up its gold. The warmth enters her like the presence of God, slowly making Himself known. The light of the world. To those who were in darkness.
Even now, after a decade of confinement, her mind is rebellious. The little things, those that should lead her to contemplation of her God and His wonders, instead lead her astray, down paths of the flesh. Now, the sun on her skin brings to mind certain times. Once in particular—that first time, by the secret pool. They had found it one day caught high in the hills, like a dew-drop in a leaf. So cold, the icy-fingered water ringing her legs, first her ankles, then her calves, thighs, making her gasp. And then, afterwards, lying on soft moss while the sun played its warmth over her; the breeze, its breath.
She should pray, pray for forgiveness for these thoughts that still afflict her, pray for the strength to resist. Pray to be delivered from them? No, never that.
But she should pray, always, she should pray, sending her prayers spinning skywards. For she is the anchorite, her vocation to anchor the church to heaven with her devotions. She imagines it sometimes, pictures herself floating far above the earth, a spider on a thread of gossamer high in the blue air. Sometimes at night she dreams she can fly. So real, then to wake and find them false.
Outside the window the apple tree is bare. Only the mistletoe hangs green in the skeleton branches. In the midst of death, we are in life. It was the summer before last she first saw the girl, meeting her lad after church under that tree. The girl’s clothes were poor and drab, but her hair was a glowing chestnut. They must have thought they would not be seen at this end of the building, out of sight of the main door. They forgot the anchoress in her cell. Once, she saw them kiss, felt for an instant such longing.
Later, the girl was on her own, picking apples in the dawn. She was thin, her bare arms like the bones of a bird. She never looked over to where another woman watched.
When she saw the girl again, her belly was large under a ragged gown. Before the anchorite knew what she was doing, she had called to the girl through the unshuttered window.
The sound of her own voice shocked her; she clapped a hand to her mouth, wishing she could call it back, stuff the cry down her rebellious throat. She took a step back from the window, her heart clamouring.
It was not her role to initiate contact with those outside. Her vocation was prayer and only prayer, and she was maintained by the church for that purpose. Even her bread was not hers to give away, but was given by others to sustain her in her work.
Her bread. She had some left from the midday meal. In recent days, she had been feeling low in spirits as the dusk drew near and had taken to keeping a piece of bread to eat at such moments.
The girl was still there, standing uncertain under the tree, an Eve without an Adam. She would not see the anchorite, clothed as she was in the darkness of her cell. Again, she called out and this time reached her arm across the thickness of wall that divided them so that she could thrust the bread through the narrow window.
‘Take it,’ she said, as the girl drew near. But perhaps she had misjudged. Perhaps the girl was not in need and would be insulted by her charity.
But the girl came closer, until she could see her only in fragments. Eyes too large in a face smudged with shadows. The girl reached for the bread, fingertips brushing hers. The touch sent a jolt of—what was it?—through her to the core. It was the first time she had touched another human hand in ten years.
The anchorite snatched her hand away, catching it on the stonework so that it stung. It might as well have been the girl’s touch that caused such stinging. She held her hand to her chest, nursing it, her heart fluttering like that of a bird, caught in the net and trembling.
The next day she kept her bread and her soup, ignored the mutterings of her stomach. She was used to fasting. Between Prime and Terce, between the prayer times of Sext and None, she watched. As she sat at her Lectio Divina, she found herself, every few minutes, glancing up from the book and wondering.
The girl came as evening was dropping toward dusk. A whispered word outside the window that made the anchorite start from her stool. She picked up the bowl of soup, her hands unsteady. This time she pushed the bowl to the window, handed out the spoon so that the girl could feed herself by reaching in through the stonework. The girl’s hands shook so that she spilt much of the soup, knocking the spoon against the window-surround. When the bowl was empty, the anchorite gave her the bread. Their fingers touched. Again, the jolt ran through her to the core, the feeling that was like unto God. Such blasphemy.
After that the girl had come for many days, until the anchorite grew faint with fasting. Then one day the girl did not come. The dusk closed in, the thrush flew to roost from his perch in the apple, and still she did not come. The soup, long cold, sat in its wooden bowl on the stool by her side. Sick with hunger, she waited. The girl might still come under cover of darkness. Her stomach growled. She sank to her knees to pray.
In the grey light of morning, she ate. In a few hours she would be brought more and she could save that instead. As she waited she wondered what had happened, if it was time for her to be brought to bed. She thought not, that her belly was not yet large enough, but she knew she was not wise in such things. Remembering, she tries again to imagine it, swelling like a fruit with new life. Yet she cannot regret her choice—there are other matters, rich and strange, which she would never have known were it not for the womb of these four walls.
The days passed. She did not see the girl again. Never even knew her name. Had she moved on, found work and a place to stay? Or was she dead, her child cold in her unliving womb? For months, the thought of her was a nagging ache. The anchorite never asked, not having a name to give to the face. But the girl haunted her, those thin features, still touched with the breath of youth.
The Lord, in His infinite wisdom, knows. Yet how can He bear it, so many souls in their pain? She had thought when she entered the anchor-hold that here was a refuge from the storms of the world. She was young then, too young to have learnt that the torment of the heart will follow wherever goes the flesh. Even from this narrow window she can see the gibbet on the hill, the bodies blown by the wind, their souls known only to God. Over the years, she has come to know that all the world is here, in this stone-encompassed room. (She can pace it out—four paces this way, four paces that.) Here she has known the heights of despair and the deepest joy. She has sent her prayers spinning into the void and felt them climb to the light. Feared there was no God and known that there was. Watched the turning of the year as the apple-tree changed with the seasons. The apple that was the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, the tree of Adam and of Golgotha. The tree where the lovers met, where the girl plucked fruit.
The anchorite shifts on her stool. The winter sun has rolled round in its orbit while she has been sitting and the light now falls, a spear of gold, on the stone floor, pointing the way to the crucifix on the wall. The man of sorrows, who suffers all, endures all. She turns back her sleeves so they once more cloak her pale flesh with their dark fabric. It is time for her offices. Later, when darkness has fallen, she will eat her bread.
Once she is sure the girl will not come this day.