The abbess turns and through the dark she walks sure, while the other two take tentative steps, touching the wall. Into the night, through the cloister. The abbess goes back again up her stairwell, and calls down to Marie to sleep well, new prioress, for Marie will begin her good work sorting through the parchments and account books tomorrow.
Marie follows Wevua into the chapel where one beeswax taper is left burning. The abbey in its distress has sold all its ornaments, and only a wood carving remains: skinny shanks and wounds and thorns and blood and rib‑bones, that ancient story she knows by heart. Up the black night stairs to the dortoir, where a single lantern burns over the rows of twenty nuns already asleep in their narrow beds, wearing their full habits, for perhaps it is tonight that the Angels of the Resurrection will blow their horns and they must be prepared to fly into the arms of heaven. There is a sense that eyes are watching Marie but what faces she sees are smooth with sleep, feigned or real. There are whispers down the line, a rattling cough. Wind blows through the gaps in the window shutters, there are flakes in the dortoir’s air that melt before they touch the ground. Marie lies down on the bed that Wevua gestures toward. She is too tall for these bedframes and has no comfort until she slides down to bend her knees and put her feet on the floor, which meets her heel flesh with its implacable cold.
Oh for her mother’s large goodness, the rumbling laugh that made everything better, the verbena of her neck; but her mother has been dead these five years. Or for Cecily to warm her body, to speak rough sense, to share in Marie’s hatred of this frigid and awful place so she does not have to bear it alone. What Cecily would think of this place, who, as a child in the dust and stink of the chicken coop where thick light poured sideways from the chinks, reached under the hens for an egg, her filthy kitchen smock as her vestment, and, wearing her sternest face, swinging a bucket of ash for her censer, intoned gibberish in the girls’ play of Mass while cracking into Marie’s open mouth the egg still warm from inside its mother, the body and the blood mixed as one, and Marie crossed herself and could barely swallow the overrich viscous warm egg down. Then Cecily’s breath in Marie’s face, she’d been chewing the peels of the carrots she’d been paring, and her hard small tongue licking the spilled yolk on Marie’s chin. Second heresy, mouth on mouth. Her frank and knowing body; there was no privacy among the servants, where she learned such arts. The heat, the discovery within this stout dimpled girl with straw in her hair. The pulse of her body on top of Marie’s.
Marie clutches her own hands, but they are cold and bony, they are not Cecily’s.
Slowly, the dortoir warms with the breath and body heat of the nuns. The wind howls lonely outside. Marie stops shivering. She will never sleep again, she thinks; then she sleeps.
She dreams immediately and vividly. A memory, a dock steaming wet and a sea beyond, brilliant with reflected sun. An aching dry heat and the mouths of fish in nets silently screaming, a crowd, women bearing terra-cotta pots on their heads, smells of rot of blood of bodies of smoke of salt sea. Children swimming below through the dark thickets of legs. Everywhere, the white tunic and red cross of the crusaders. Hubbub of voices in ungraspable languages, distant flutes, groaning of wood, slap of waves. Under her haunches the feel of strong shoulders, a woman’s hand steadying her child thighs, oh it is her mother. A circle forms of the mob. At the circle’s bare center stands a naked woman shining oiled in the sun, so beautiful. Hair in loose black curls to her waist and puffs at the armpits and groin. She wears a silver chain around her neck, a slave. In her face there is contempt, she does not look at the gathering crowd, she looks above them at the distant heavens. There is shouting, a wheeling music starting up, a whip snapped in the air perilously close to the woman’s soft belly. Insolent as a cat the naked woman slowly steps backward into a wooden box that rises to her knees. She bends and is hidden. Then the box’s top is hammered shut upon her. Now a sword is held glinting up; with a terrible roar, it is thrust into the box, and Marie’s breath is hitched, there must be a red puddle growing; don’t look, Marie looks, but there is no puddle at least not yet before another sword is brandished, thrust in, and another, another, swifter and swifter. What is frozen within the dreaming Marie thaws, and there is a struggle, a terror, someone must stop this, where is the authority to stop this, the box already bristles with hilts. Hush now, her mother’s voice now in her ear, hush, be calm, it is only a trick. Swords are slowly withdrawn. Lid prized up. A long pause of gasping horror. And then at last the woman slowly rises out of the low place where she had lain. So beautiful, still shining, still so full of spite and hate. She is alive and her skin is unwounded, not a cut is on its smooth and perfect length, all of her blood remains inside her skin. The hat is passed around, it is filling with coins. Shudders ripple Marie from the bones outward, and her beloved mother’s voice in her ear again, It’s all right, my love, that poor woman slithered herself around like a little snake in there.
Marie wakes to Wevua a great dark cloud before her, and a pain in her knees because Wevua is kicking Marie’s legs with the toe of her clogs, telling her to get up, lazybones, to get up great frail whingeing thing, that it is now Matins, up up up, blueblood lagabed rawboned unlovely shadow‑hearted bastardess of a false prioress, up up up, the magistra spies no love for god within Marie’s wicked heart and Wevua will seed it there by force or see the girl perish unshriven.
Marie rises in a panic and sees through the window the moon fat in the black sky and all the landscape swallowed in darkness. And ahead of her in the single lantern light the other nuns are disappearing down the night stairs, faceless in the dark. And Marie still in the vividness of her dream hears their habits rustling dry and cold and can think only of the wings of carrionbirds descending in slow circles to their feast of death below.
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