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by Kirsty Logan
The weight of the people pushed her into the ground, anchored in the earth, keeping them steady. She shouldered them all without touching an inch of skin, her strength as invisible and as strong as an undertow.
She did not need to touch them to help them. She was no mother, no healer, no saint. She was just a woman in a room with her eyes shadowed behind a slit the size of a bird’s wing. But she did not see birds’ wings. She did not see sky, she did not see grass or snow or stars. She saw a wall, and an occasional eye, and the cold plain plates they pushed in to her. She saw her own dirtying hands, her own thinning skin. She saw the earth of her grave.
Through the wall, the people saw her. They saw her as a thing that was ancient and pristine, curious and everyday. They saw the shapes and shadows of her form through the dense bricks. They saw the world in that bird’s-wing glimpse of her eyes.
The men sought her out for answers, and to look. She was the ultimate dream: the silent virgin, the hidden beauty. In the soft dark of their beds, each of their wives had the face of an anchoress. They wanted her, and they did not.
The women sought her out for wisdom, for the secrets of faith and eternity. They saw that she did not have to bother with the scars of children and the stitching together of families. With all that time to think, she must have all the wisdom in the world. The women wanted to be her, and they did not. They wanted protection and quiet like she had, but not like that, not like her.
It was cold the day of her enclosure. The grave had been dug for her, spread open in the corner of the anchorage. The fresh earth smelled sweet and musky, flesh-like. She might have thought it smelled like sex, but instead she thought of the orchard behind her mother’s house, the smell after it had rained. Her mother was a hundred miles away now, in another tiny town, scraping her knuckles on someone else’s washing, watching for someone else’s children.
The taper the anchoress carried lit her chin and cheeks, the curve of her mouth; her cheekbones made shadows of her eyes. The bishop stood impassive by the half-finished wall as the anchoress walked towards him. He kept his gaze on his folded hands as she lay down on the funeral bier. It was hard under her back, and she pressed her spine flat on to the wood. The men piled the bricks slowly, slowly, then faster so that she would be covered, so that they would not have to see the woman or the taper burning down to nothing or the dark yawn of the open grave. The anchoress closed her eyes and waited for grace.
The plaque in front of me says that the Anchoress was eighteen when the men bricked her up in that squalid little hole. The tour guide is wittering on in hushed French, making out that she was some heroine of the people, when it’s pretty damn clear to me that she was a sacrificial victim. If the world hadn’t been so awful, if women had had more choices, if she had had any sort of choice at all, then it wouldn’t have seemed so attractive to hide away. I mean, what else was she going to do? Marry some sweaty farmhand and pop out a dozen of his spawn without any anaesthetic or child benefits or Calpol? Fuck that. If I’d been living then I’d have got myself walled up in a church too.
Jenny still has her head stuck in the guidebook. ‘Babes, what do you reckon about looking at the Modern Art Museum next?’
I push the guidebook down. Her eyes follow it. I pull her chin so she’s looking in my eyes. ‘Why are you obsessing over what you’re going to see next when you’re not even looking at what’s in front of you?’
Jenny glances at the faded brick walls and the electric lamps fitted up to flicker like candlelight. ‘I already read about it in the guidebook. It’s some pretty sick shit. She’s probably explaining it right now.’ She nods at the guide, who is still shushing on in French, which neither of us understands.
‘I’m impressed that you’re so upset by the mistreatment of women in the Middle Ages.’
‘Yeah, okay. I guess.’ Jenny flips through the guidebook. ‘But I meant this. Listen.’ She recites in a stuttering monotone, the way children read aloud. ‘Sometimes the anchoress’s grave would be made ready at the time of her enclosure and kept open as a memento mori. She was bidden not just to meditate on her own mortality by staring into the empty grave but, with her bare hands, to scrape up some earth from the grave every day. When she died the anchoress was buried in the anchorage grave.’ She looks up at me triumphantly. ‘What did I tell you? Sick shit.’
The anchoress is in there. She’s been in there since she was eighteen years old, and six hundred years later she’s still there. What’s left of her.
‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘sick shit.’ I can’t keep the tremor out of my voice, but Jenny doesn’t seem to notice. Her head is back in the guidebook, probably trying to find another piece of history she can recite to gross me out. History isn’t real to Jenny, this girl isn’t real.
But she is real. Or she was. Now she’s just a pile of dust in an old convent in a sleepy town that we only stopped in because we didn’t want to keep driving so soon after lunch.
I step right up to the wall, and I put my eyes to that letterbox-sized gap in the bricks, and I look into the blackness of that tiny little room. And I see her.