I had always wanted to be a jongleur, to leap from the shoulders of another, to fly and tumble, to dare myself in thin air with nothing but my arms and legs to land me safely on the ground. An acrobat is not a bird, but it is the closest a person can come to being free in the air. The nearest to an angel’s gift of flying.
But that was as a child, when my body was secure, like that of a boy, and I felt myself whole and able to try anything. That was before my arms and legs grew soft and awkward and my woman’s body took away those strong, pliant surfaces of skin, before I knew I could bleed and not die or, worse still, carry a life inside me and die because of it.
In spite of my body, the dream remained. It was the idea that I loved; I understood enough of the world to know that I could never be a jongleur.
I remember Roland especially, though in my child’s fancy I called him Swallow. He was part of a traveling troupe that visited our town one market day and began to perform in the middle of the crowd, the music and the colors of the costumes nudging us to stop and watch. A circle formed, with Swallow as its center. His costume was gray striped with red, his face painted with blue on his cheeks and forehead and red on his nose. He balanced the hilt of a sword in each hand, the blades standing tall above him, and danced, lifting his knees, pointing and scooping his feet in front and behind. When he stopped, his confrere gently placed an apple on the tip of each blade. Making sure they were still, the balance certain, Swallow stepped right then left, forward and backward, a slow and graceful single carole, smiling at us all. Finally he threw the swords up and caught them in one hand—though someone shouted, ‘Blunt, you fraud’—and gathered the apples with the other. He bowed deeply and ran to join his companions, who were building a tower, three on the bottom then two on their shoulders. With dancing feet, Roland climbed from leg to arm to leg to arm and onto the shoulders of the men on top. He stood still for a moment, arms in the air, stretching out to the heavens, face tilted up, then leaped and tumbled. I gasped to see him swoop like a swallow in the gray sky beyond. He landed surefooted and still on two slippered feet, and the six men formed a line, bowed deeply, then turned around, pulled down their breeches, and farted at us, one at a time. The crowd laughed and cheered but I was still leaping in the air with Swallow.
When I saw him later that day with his face cleaned of color, I saw his nose was not at all like a swallow’s beak, but sat to one side of his face as if it had been dough flattened by a rough hand. He told me he had fallen when learning to tumble; his own knee had broken his nose as he landed.
The day after I was enclosed I thought of Swallow. I’d thrown away everything in this world and leaped into the air, lighter than I’d ever been, flying to God, who would catch me in his arms. Here, like Swallow, I was a body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear, and I thought I had what I wanted.
I didn’t know then that I had landed on hard ground and broken my bones with my own body.
The Church of St. Juliana
Hartham, English Midlands
St. Faith’s Day, October 6, 1255
I was near the door, where women should stay. The floor was hard, refusing me, though I lay facedown, my arms out- stretched, embracing it, wanting this life, this death. I knew there were people nearby, those from the village who had come to look or pray, but I saw none of them. Voices in the sanctuary that seemed so far away sang a dirge, a celebration of loss, prayers for me. I knew the words: I had read and reread them, memorized them, prayed on them, but now they were nothing but sound. The dank cold of stone crept into my bones; I did not feel the drops of water on my back, their chill blessing. I had become stone.
The bishop lifted me to my feet, my legs leaden, and guided me toward the altar. I took the candles they gave me; now a flame glowed in each hand and I could see nothing beyond them. From somewhere outside my ring of light, the bishop’s words implored me: Be fervent in love of God and your neighbour.’ I knelt and prayed.
Then words, paper, and more words: I signed to all I had asked for. The clinking of the thurible’s chain and the bitter-sweet smell of incense drifted close, quietly wrapped around me like a shroud, like arms that loved me.
They led me through the front door, away from the gathered light of candles and people, and out into the night, black and chill. We walked through the graveyard, wet grass under my feet, the dead all around me. Singing came from the darkness: ‘May angels lead you to paradise’; this was the hymn we’d sung for Ma when she died, and later for Emma, too. At the cell we stopped and the warm hands that held my arms let go. I shivered. The bishop’s voice commanded, ‘If she wants to go in, let her go in.’
The dark mouth stood open. I took a breath and stepped inside. Blackness yawned around me, damp on my face. But voices were nearby, sweet ones, singing, ‘Be of good courage, thy desire from God is at hand.’ They laid me down on the floor, scatterings of dirt and words falling on me, into my mouth and eyes. Death desired me and I accepted: ‘Here I will stay forever; this is the home I have chosen.’ I could feel my bones, white and still in the black soil; worms wove among my ribs like wool on a loom. Deep in this darkness I am dead. My body dissolves, crumbles, turns to earth. They turned and walked away, left me alone.
I startled, fright hot and sharp in my chest. Blows shuddered the door. I stood and pressed my hands against it, felt nails splintering wood, the sound sharp in my ears, then echoing inside my head. These hammer blows that sealed my door were the nailing of my hands and feet to the cross with Christ, the tearing of his skin and sinew. The jolt of each blow pushed me away but I strained to feel it, the shiver of resistance humming in my body.
When she was dying, Emma had opened her hand for mine, held on to me, held on to life. Another nail, and another, the judder running through my arms and into my chest, through my jaw and into my teeth. The taste of blood sharp on my tongue. Christ made no noise, his face tight with pain; Emma didn’t speak, just looked at me, her eyes fading. Blood dripped, then ran.
The hammering ceased but still my arms throbbed and silence rang in my ears. Then scuffling, tools clinking, the church door banging shut, the dull click of its latch, low and serious voices fading. I stepped away from the door, the smell of incense floating up from my robe to touch my cheek.
Two candles burned on my altar; they must be the ones I had carried in the church. I took two or three steps toward the bed and sat down delicately, as if not to disturb someone else’s sleeping place; the straw rustled. I stood up again and peered into the gloom. Of a sudden my body came back to me: my heart was beating hard, my legs were shaking, and my belly ached. I needed to piss, now. I looked around for the bucket, found it at the end of the bed, pulled up my robe, and squatted. The ache in my belly lessened and I felt calmer. I reached out, touched the cold stone wall, rough and gritty on my hand. The clotted smell of dampness, the earthy smell of moss. This was to be my home—no, my grave—for the rest of my life.
I knelt at my altar and began Compline—’The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end’—but my words ran out. I’d prayed these words each night since I was a child; they were part of me, like breathing, and now they had deserted me. But this was my life, to pray. I began again, my breath fast and shallow, hoping that the thread would catch and the words be pulled along. Nothing; they would not return however much I concentrated. It was as if I’d never learned them. My first night alone and I had no prayer. I snatched at some lines: Iesu Criste, Fili Dei uiui, miserere nobis . . . Domine, labia mea aperies . . . I sang Veni creator spiritus over and over until my heart settled and slowed. My head drooped. I blew out the candles and crawled over to my bed, crossed myself, and closed my eyes. It was done.