No 167 - 2002
The Window: An Extract
This extract is taken from a novel-in-progress set in the late 14th century. It is about an anchoress living in a cell attached to the side of a church. For the uninitiated, once enclosed, anchoresses or anchorites, only left their cells on pain of excommunication. They had three windows: one onto a street (through which they gave counsel), one onto a service area (through which they were passed food) and one onto the altar (through which they received communion).
One autumn day, in the year of 1376, Perpetua Clancy, her mother, Susannah, sisters Hannah and Martha, Hannah’s husband, Luke, and various nieces and nephews, were eating Sunday dinner. Amongst ten of them gathered, they had devoured six chicken, fifteen boiled onions and six loaves of bread, as well as a basket of apples. The adults were sitting at the long oak table that dominated the ill-lit hall. Two servants were in attendance, scurrying back and forth from the kitchen. The meal had been cooked by Rebecca who had been with the family for many years.
Talk had been about Hannah’s new baby. She was a late child: Hannah was thirty-four years old. Perpetua, to be godmother for the sixth time over, proposed a name such as Liberty, Hope, Constance, Verity or Faith. But Susannah favoured Elgiva, after a fashionable though lesser Saint whose finger bones - closely resembling sheep’s vertebrae - she had seen on a trip made in 1370 to Shaftesbury, in the West Country, shortly after her husband’s death.
‘Perpetua’s suggestions are thoughtful. They have a certain enduring quality,’ Hannah reflected. Susannah glowered at the derelict chicken carcasses and began to chew the inside of her mouth. ‘But mother’s is somehow more individual,’ Hannah added.
‘Mother’s it will no doubt be then,’ added Perpetua with typical, tactful grace. Susannah’s eyes swept off the greasy leftovers; she flashed her family a broad grin.
‘The relics are housed in the most beautiful gold casket, and the miracles that have taken place undeniable. When I visited the shrine, one of my fellow pilgrims, blind up to that minute, whilst kneeling before the reliquary, was granted full restoration of her eyesight. And a small child, no more than five years of age, hitherto bald...’
‘Bald? Bald? Come, come, mother! Children do not turn bald.’
Susannah nodded at Perpetua solemnly.
‘Yes bald. A child hitherto bald woke up the very next morning with a full head of golden hair.’
Hannah and Perpetua exchanged a furtive smile. For a few seconds there was silence, interrupted by a hiss, pop and crackle from the grate. One of the children had thrown damp wood on the fire. The smoke stuck in the chimney before swilling down to fill the room with thick, blue vapours that made everyone’s eyes smart. Coughing and spluttering, Luke threw open the shutters of the single arched window. Dark clouds raced towards open air.
‘I have something to say,’ Perpetua said, fanning away the fumes with her hand.
She rarely made announcements. Surrounded by her mother’s high drama all her life, Perpetua had reacted against it, curling in on herself, like a flag around a stake. Now she unfurled. Her sisters and mother stilled and steeled themselves.
Perpetua’s voice chimed, ‘This very day you will accompany me to St Anne’s where I will be enclosed.’
Little John’s spinning top flopped sideways. Susannah stopped chomping on her apple. Her eyes flooded with instant tears. Luke’s hand dropped from his wife’s shoulders. Martha giggled, and then all of a sudden stopped. Susannah snapped, ‘How long have you known today was to be the day?’
‘Since last night. After confession, Father Joseph told me that at long last a benefactor had given the sum of five shillings to support the anchorage of St Anne and St Edward. A maidservant has spent the day brushing out the rooms, uninhabited for five years. The place will be ready this evening.’
Susannah began to sniffle, then to weep. Perpetua dragged a stool next to her.
‘I didn’t speak of it earlier since I knew it would cause pain if I gave you time to ponder,’ she explained.
Every family member had known that Perpetua was intending to become an anchoress, but since - to them at least - she rarely articulated her burgeoning vocation, they had chosen to ignore it, hoping that the lighter the accent they gave the idea, the more likely it would dispel of its own accord. If they imagined Perpetua’s enclosure at all, they saw it enacted in a far distant year, a future so remote that it might never be reached.
Perpetua put her arm around her mothers shoulders and squeezed. The warmth of Susannah’s flesh always came as a surprise. Next, Perpetua embraced Hannah. With her customary simplicity and integrity, Hannah said, ‘May you be happy.’ Luke raised a leather cup in a toast.
Only Martha, Perpetua’s youngest sister, said nothing. The muscles around her eyes and mouth froze; her expression was lifeless and quite inscrutable. If Perpetua hadn’t known Martha as deeply as she did, she might have judged her composure indicative of a starched, infrangible nature. Instead, the coolness indicated an extreme upset, one perhaps more heartfelt than that of the others, one that would doubtless find full, loud expression in the following months. Perpetua moved back to her mother who was by now crying in rhythmic, gulping convulsions. ‘Hush!’ Perpetua murmured, ‘Just hush. You’ll make yourself sick.’
Dusk fell fast that night. In the short walk to the church the sky changed from blue to pink to orange. The alleyway, canopied by overhanging second storeys, seemed darker than ever, though outside several of the houses firebrands burnt, hung by the wealthier merchants for the benefit of Sunday visitors. Many of the windows and doors were open. The murmur of conversations, the harsher notes of arguments, occasionally the music of fiddles, pipes, and often song floated out. From the rear of merchants’ yards, horses whinnied and kicked stable doors. Hens and guinea fowl scuttled left and right. A loose pig rooted and snuffled in a heap of entrails, fur and bones left outside the butcher’s door.
Susannah and Perpetua walked arms entwined, Susannah in silent tears. Neither spoke. Once a mind of Perpetua’s peculiarly original metal was cast it proved fixed, impossible to mould even by the hottest forge on North Hill. Susannah knew it would prove pointless, and simply more upsetting, to try to dissuade her eldest daughter from her choice. The family walked directly behind. Hannah clasped her children’s hands. Martha carried the baby. The church would be cold, Hannah commented. Luke ran back to fetch an extra rug. The clop of his wooden pattens on the flint pebbles faded, disappeared, and returned a few minutes later.
Under the lych gate, beneath the yew, a tall, thin man who had held tenure for the best part of a decade, who had christened the Clancy family’s younger members and buried its elders, waited on a damp, wooden bench. When Father Joseph saw the family he stood, extending his arms out to the mother first. Susannah clasped his hands so tight that his fingers stung. Next he kissed her children, then the soft haired heads of the grandchildren. He nodded to Perpetua. Wanting to spend some time alone before the service began, she broke away, running up the path and through the graveyard, to the Church’s West entry.
Inside, the church smelt as churches always did - a mix of cold stone, incense, beeswax and tallow candles, three of which were burning on the main altar. Several parishioners had painted much of the plasterwork bright orange, red, and blue but the fresco’s vibrancy - or even existence - was only apparent by day, when the sun shone. In the evening gloom, it was hard not to see the church as a large, dank cave, unnamed threats lurking in its shaded alcoves.
Perpetua’s eyes were drawn to the crucifix that towered ten feet high above the altar. The cross itself was constructed from untreated wood. From its branches dangled a gruelling representation of the dying Christ. Tears of rust coloured blood trickled from a crown of thorns down over his cheeks and chin, onto his emaciated, off-white chest. His protruding ribcage was incised by a four-inch gash. The crucifix dominated the church, all the more so now, in the prevailing darkness, when it was lit by a yellow glow that threw odd shadows, hollowing His eyes and sinking His cheeks. Christ’s form seemed even more real now than it did in broad daylight, when the paintwork seemed brash and overstated, the carpentry crude.
Perpetua walked to the back of the nave, continuing to focus on the cross. The flurries of last minute anxiety - or even ambivalence - vanished. She felt a great peace within her, far less a loss at a life to be left behind than a sense of imminent gain.
The door’s vast hinges creaked: the family entered. Perpetua dropped her gaze to the ground, knowing that if she caught any one of them by eye now, their pain of severance would be all the more acute. Father Joseph seated Susannah, Hannah, Luke, Martha and the children in the front pew. He lit two extra candles at the altar, then attached two flares to two pillars. When this was done he nodded to the female shadow at the back of church to follow him into the vestry. Perpetua slipped down the side aisle.
The two had been through all there was to say many times before. They had held up to the light each one of Perpetua’s reasons for becoming enclosed. There was nothing left to say, no facet unexamined. Father Joseph motioned to the long black robe that Alice had laid out on a chair. He withdrew whilst Perpetua dressed.
First she took off her headdress, then unhooked her cloaks brass clasp. The cape slithered off, its fur collar tickling her neck as it fell. Perpetua shivered. Quickly she unhooked the pearl buttons at the front of her heavily brocaded outer dress. It peeled off like a coat. When she was down to her cotton underdress, she tugged the new black robe over her head. The fabric felt stiff and heavy but warm. It smelt of sheep. Lastly, she adjusted her veil.
Father Joseph knocked, and then came in. He made no comment on her new look but bent down to shoot the bolt open on the external vestry door.
‘Go,’ he instructed.
She stepped outside, knowing that she now had to circle the church, and reenter it, for the last time, by the main door. The pathway here was hardly used. Covered with green algae, it was hazardous. Perpetua tiptoed onto the surrounding grass - a mistake, it was wet and turned the hem of her robe sodden.
At the main door Father Joseph met her, along with five or six nuns, all of whom she knew from the Priory. They were as solemn as Joseph. Their formality returned Perpetua to her own contemplations, as was their intent. Father Joseph began to speak, at first a murmur only audible to those immediately around him. Gradually his volume increased. Soon his voice filled the church.
‘We brought nothing into the world, and it is certain that we carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
‘I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though my skin rots and worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh I shall see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.’
They processed up the aisle to beyond the rood screen - Joseph first, then Perpetua, lastly the sisters. The congregation rose. Joseph turned to face them, his back to the altar. The sisters and Perpetua remained facing the altar. To the family they seemed a line of anonymous black shrouded figures with Perpetua only recognisable on account of her height - in their dead centre. Father Joseph’s previously deliberate speech gave way to an equally consequential chant. ‘Dies Irae, dies illa, Solvent saeclum in favilla,’ he began. Soon the nuns joined in, resting their voices on top of Joseph’s deeper thrum.
The flickering candlelight, the prevailing darkness, the lateness of the day, the humming lilt of the verses rhymes and rhythms soothed and caressed Perpetua’s mind, pre-empting the need for rational thought. For much of the service she made no attempt to understand what was being sung. The sounds, tenuously grounded in meaning, washed over her.
At some stage, one of the sisters took Perpetua’s hand, and whispered that she lie down on the stone floor. Perpetua did so, laying herself out as though she were dead, faced up to the ceiling. To her left she heard the shuffle of footsteps and next thing two faces hovered either side of her, their pale pink spheres framed by the black and white rims of their veils. A candle was placed at her head, another at her feet. The sister wafted open a pall. As it fell, it spread over the prostrate figure. Two cold index fingers pressed on Perpetua’s eyelids, pushing them shut.
Father Joseph began to speak again: Perpetua was, from now on, as if dead to the world. She must have twitched, for suddenly there was a gasp from one of the nuns, and someone said out loud the word ‘levitate’. There was a second gasp, recognisable as coming from Susannah, and then a ripple of inhalations. By now Perpetua had been lying on the floor for fifteen minutes. Her spine ached and bruised from unremitting contact with the hard stone. Her skull throbbed.
Just as she was wishing the service over, Father Joseph said, ‘Rise now.’ She stood. The sisters began to sing a psalm whilst Joseph guided Perpetua to the door of her cell. Perpetua held her head high, fixing her eyes on Joseph’s sloped back, away from row of faces in the pew.
‘We hereby entrust to you oh Lord our sister and pray that she may deserve to obtain a perfect union with you,’ he said.
‘Amen,’ she replied.
She ducked her head to avoid the low stone lintel. She entered her cell alone. She walked to the window and fastened the catch. There was a thump as she shut the door and a clatter as she turned the lock.
Soon after, her tremulous voice, muffled by the thickness of the walls, began to sing. ‘This is my last resting place forever!’
The service was over.
The cell was small, twelve feet by twelve. It possessed three windows. In none of the windows was there glass. The window that looked on to the alleyway was curtained by thick black serge in which was cut the shape of the cross. In sunlight the crucifix shone gold. The second window looked straight onto the altar; the third onto a room in which Alice, the maidservant, slept.
There was a narrow bed, upon which were laid ample blankets. There was a three-legged stool, rather like a milking stool. There was a table, only just wide enough to lean on.
Beneath the table was a pot. On the table was a cup of cow’s milk, and a crust of bread. There was also a slate candlestick, in which, on this first night, a candle burnt. There was a wedge of ample parchment, two uncut goose quills, a silver penknife, a pot of black ink and a pumice stone.
Perpetua makes her home in the small room at St Anne’s Church.
She can’t see much from her window, nor is she meant to. She can see the head of the sitter. If she stands, the legs. If she crouches, a view from the waist up. The window is a twelve-inch square looking onto a dusty alley that slopes down from Ber to King Street, a stone’s throw from the Clancy house. The alleyway has never been cobbled.
There’s a gully running beneath her window, down which effluent trickles and sludges into the river. The stench is appalling at six and seven in the morning, better mid-afternoon. She soon gets used to it. At home (Perpetua refers to 4, King Street as home; the house she shared with Eben lies beyond definition, as heavenly things do) servants emptied the privy; it was only during the Plague that the job fell to the family. In the cell, there’s no avoiding frail, base mortality. Being cold recalls it. Being hungry, ill, or just lonely.
Oddly, the stench reminds Perpetua of the jasmine that Sister Benedicta grew against the Priory’s South Wall. What makes the beauty beauteous, Benedicta said, in terms of scent, she added - sotto voce - as if scent itself was a sin, was an element called the base note. Every great smell is but a sum of composites, possessing, like the most affecting of music, a range of notes both high and low. The best scents - which Benedicta defined as being the fullest and most mature - have pungent whiffs of excrement running through them.
And so it is. Perpetua remembers the aromas of sweet rose otto, musky frankincense, myrrh, and even common lavender. With all these fragrances, it’s not a question of there being one smell, but many, each suggesting varying degrees of carnality. Thinking of pleasant scents is probably a sin. Perpetua feels sure Father Joseph would class it so. She misses Sister Benedicta. She wishes she would come. She won’t. She said so, the last time they met. ‘The rule is severance. Severance.’ Perpetua was crying. She had hoped, against reason, that Benedicta might see their case as exceptional. She didn’t.
Despite Perpetua’s requests, Susannah will not keep away. First thing the first morning, she is rattling the shutter - forcing it with her shudders with a gift of newly cooked bread.
Perpetua hurries up from kneeling and opens the shutters. A thick white fog cloaks the rooftops. A thinner mist hangs in the alleyway. A smell of fallen leaves and damp cold earth wafts in.
‘You know I cannot take it, mother. I cannot even touch it.’
Susannah rolls her eyes and smiles. The small bun - a perfectly risen, exact sphere made from the costliest white flour - sits on her skirt, tempting.
‘Already we’re missing you,’ Susannah says, drawing a finger over the rolls shiny egg glaze, sniffing its warm yeasty scent. She sighs. ‘Won’t you? Its delicious!’
Can she be missed so soon? Perpetua peers through the curtain, or rather, the hole that the cross makes within the curtain. Her mother’s face is fully visible; it crowds Perpetua’s field of vision, blocking out the buildings behind. In the raw morning light, Perpetua notices how Susannah’s pale cheeks are flecked with flat, rust coloured blemishes larger than freckles. Her irises are brown as ever but the cornea, especially its corners, is marked by a delta of pink veins. Two or three wiry white hairs protrude from otherwise thick black eyebrows. The skin surrounding her mother’s eyes is hatched with fine lines; that of her lower, hollow cheeks dry and papery. All that Susannah herself can see is serge, dark and lustrous as charcoal, behind which Perpetua sits.
‘Hannah and Martha spent all last night weeping. None of us slept a wink,’ Susannah says, turning the bun round and round in the palm of her hand. When she receives no answer, she stares at the roof above Perpetua’s cell, then repeats, ‘Hannah and Martha spent all night weeping. None of us slept a wink.’
‘I heard you the first time, mother,’ Perpetua softly replies, amazed at her steady tone, this despite the fact her chest has tightened and her heart throbs irregularly, in disquieting spurts.
‘It seems you’re not listening,’ Susannah says.
‘But I am.’
A woodpigeon coos and Susannah sniffs. Then, all at once, the sniffs become tears, the tears sobs and next thing, Susannah is blinking furiously and wiping her wet cheeks with her sleeve. Perpetua reaches out to draw the curtain. Just in time, she stops, reining her arm in. She slides both hands under her bottom so neither stray.
‘Have you nothing to say? Have you lost your voice?’
‘No, I can still speak.’
Men and women walk past, midriffs visible rather than heads. A donkey clops by - four bulbous knees, four muddied fetlocks. Then a woman wanders up to the window. She pushes in front of Susannah, sticks her face up to the cross. Her mouth opens to reveal yellowing teeth and an unhealthy looking tongue that is furred white.
‘My turn next, if you will!’
Susannah snorts. The woman shuffles a few feet back, to hover at Susannah’s shoulders, arms folded. Finally she chimes across the muffled sniffs, ‘If no one’s going to talk, can I?’
Susannah nods, stands and leaves. ‘Think on my misery!’ she calls, turning into King Street.
‘None can be as bad as mine,’ the woman mutters, taking her seat.
It takes a while for Perpetua’s body to get used to the strange new timetable. At first, it doesn’t wake for Vigiliae and the task of rousing it falls to Father Joseph. He never simply shouts, ‘Wake up!’ but does the job circuitously, crashing open and clattering shut the church door. If that doesn’t work, he lifts something heavy such as the lectern or the single stool that’s left out for the elderly and infirm - and then drops it. The wood cracks on the stone floor, as if splintering. The technique works, though it hurts Father Joseph’s back. Sometimes his spine jams so that for a few seconds he cannot move. Perpetua wakes with a start. ‘Blessings upon you!’ she calls.
After Vigiliae, Father Joseph goes home and Perpetua offers private prayers. Mice patter up and down the central aisle. Branches from the yew tree swish to and fro across the windowpane behind the altar.
When the sky turns pink, she says Matins. Then more private meditation undisturbed - until, when the sun’s full in the sky, she says Prime.
After this Alice wakes - always with a cough. She shuffles about on the far side of the wall, sometimes humming. Alice’s cat yowls for food, turns quiet when she gets it, and next thing a hand pushes a tray full of victuals through the service window. Five slim white fingers wait for the slop bucket, palm uppermost. Perpetua makes the exchange as fast as she can, then settles down to breakfast. Every day except Friday - when she fasts - she eats as much bread as she wants, and usually a piece of fruit, at this time of year, a floury apple. When it gets colder there will be soup. Alice promises a white broth (parsnip and leek) for the joyful festivals, a red one (beetroot and carrot) for Whitsunday and the anniversaries of martyrs, and a green variety otherwise.
Perpetua is piecing her maidservant together. From the little the girl says, she seems demure, with a long, thin face that breaks into strangely intense smiles or frowns. Father Joseph says she worked in the St Stephen’s anchorage, and that its incumbent recently died. She has several odd habits. One is to cut and arrange Perpetua’s food into shapes - apples into crescent moons, green beans into arches, pale yellow cheese into cubes. Wherever possible, Alice is supposed to be a silent witness to Perpetua’s conversations at the alley window. Most of the time, Perpetua has no idea whether the girl is listening in or not.
By seven in the morning, carts are rattling past the window and feet stomping along the alley to market. The first visitors arrive. As news of Perpetua’s residence spreads, attendance will increase until, by week three, it will be common for a queue to stretch down the alleyway and curl out into King Street.
At midday, when the bells clang twelve times, she says Sext. Afterwards, she’s free again for counsel. But since this is a time when most families are sitting down to eat, business falls away. She could write, but doesn’t. She might mend cloaks and cowls belonging to the friars, or the odd vestment for Father Joseph. This is also the time when, thrice weekly, Father Joseph appears at the altar squint to take her confession.
At three, she offers Nones. On a Friday or during Lent, this is when she breaks her fast. As soon as the sun begins to set, she says Vespers.
When the last sparrows are gathering on the rooftops opposite and swirls of starlings have settled on the trees beyond, she eats supper, then washes. By Compline, she’s ready for bed. She sleeps easily, at peace.
Susannah visits again on the third morning. She sits at the window and sobs loudly. She cries, ‘How could you?’ Then, ‘How could you do this to me?’ And finally, even more amplified, ‘TO ME? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO YOUR BELOVED FAMILY?’
Perpetua grips her stool, determined to do as Father Joseph advised and say nothing. Susannah weeps and wails. In a lull between her mother’s accusatory sobs, Perpetua speaks, recounting part of a conversation she once had with Sister Benedicta. At the first word, Susannah stops crying and listens.
‘Imagine I am a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. The wheel spins me round and round and all the while Our Lord’s hands shape me, inside and out. To allow Our Lord to mould me, I have to stay on the wheel, at the still, unturning point. The wheel is my cell. Without it, I remain a lump of sticky clay. Within it I am made. No one else can make me but the master potter, Him.’
There is a pause, during which Perpetua briefly imagines that Susannah is going to respond in kind - thoughtfully, calmly. Instead she emits a bloodcurdling squeal, accompanied by a torrent of tears. Throughout the conversation, several passers-by have stopped to listen. Now one stops, fishing a clean rag from his pocket. Whilst Susannah dabs at her eyes, he glares at the window. Behind the curtain, Perpetua clenches her toes, trying to erase the man’s scowls from her mind. Once he has gone, Susannah’s eyes narrow to two hard black spots. She juts her jaw forward.
‘Despite your fancy talk, how could you?’
Afterwards, Perpetua’s legs are shuddering so violently she can barely walk to her crucifix, let alone kneel.
Perpetua is now called Anne, a name taken, firstly, from the Blessed Virgin’s mother, and secondly, from the church that the anchorage is attached to. Saint Anne also happens to be appropriately the Patron Saint of Widows.
Father Joseph offered her an array of names; they made the choice together. Despite the fact she picked Anne above Brigit, Esther, Catherine or Agnes, she still wonders when the new name will fit, if at all. She jumps whenever anyone says Anne out loud.
In fact hardly anyone ever does say Anne. Alice and Father Joseph ask questions as economically as possible: ‘Would you prefer potage warm or cold?’, ‘May I collect your candle ends?’, ‘Is there any laundry?’. Neither bothers with titles. And when a visitor comes, if the shutters are closed, they simply tap on the wooden slats, and if the curtain is pulled across, they jiggle the thick black fabric. No one ever needs to say Anne. Therefore, to herself, Perpetua will remain Perpetua.
Perpetua believes her visions were circulating the miasma, looking for someone to attach themselves to, take over, assume. Anyone could have caught them. It just so happened she did.
Father Joseph respects her modesty but feels she needs to shed just a little of it if she is to shine as brightly as she might.
He encourages her to believe she is blessed.
‘But we are all blessed,’ she replies.
He smiles warmly, repeating, ‘But you especially.’
She won’t let him get away with it.
‘No, you are. We all are.’
Hannah and Martha do not come. From the fact they stay away, Perpetua supposes they disapprove of their mother’s almost daily visits. Perpetua imagines the scenes at home: Martha and Hannah imploring Susannah not to go, Susannah screaming back she will, Hannah comforting, and then being the recipient of her mother’s rebuffs.
To the men on the wharf, her servants, her family, to anyone who’ll listen, Susannah holds she needs to see the flesh she spawned, so she will. Even if all she can do is sit at a hole in a wall and stare at a black curtain, she’ll do so. She might unsettle Perpetua - exactly her intention. She’ll never relinquish the idea of having Perpetua back in her own house, forgoing a doubtlessly virtuous path but a foolish one, especially for one so privileged.
Perpetua wishes Susannah wouldn’t come. She also knows the more she shows her discomfort - if she even lets slip the slightest tremor in her voice - the more Susannah will come. Perpetua’s instinct is to talk back, to ask about the family, to become again in various degrees, dependent on her own mood and the extent of Susannah’s pressure - the daughter she once was. Or is: she’ll remain one as long as her mother lives.
As Father Joseph instructs, she says as little as possible. To remain silent requires iron-strong will power and an abundance of grace. Fifty fifty. The grace is freely given; it is her will that can be weak.
If she chants the rosary so many times she forgets, she can relatively easily reach the quiet calm place where all mortal emotions subside and in which she’s alone with her Lord.
To reach that place is why she’s here. Then, and there, she’ll understand.
On bad days, she needs to find the good, water it, and exaggerate it, until it outstrips the bad. The battle is usually over by lunchtime, clinched by the arrival of the tray of food. By the time she has drunk her first sip of milk, or bitten into the flesh of bread, her spirits are raised. She chomps through the coarse brown dough. If no one’s around, she’ll spit the indigestible grains straight out into the alley. She plays a game, seeing how far she can shoot the hard brown seeds. One time she hit the wall opposite. The grain stuck; she can still see it. She’s trying for a line of seeds, a pattern of her own making.
Perpetua draws her stool up to her desk, cuts the quill and hovers the nib above the parchment.
Since she must use costly paper rather than an erasable wax tablet, she needs to know exactly what to write before she begins. But the more she stares at the paper, the less she knows what to write, or whether she can.
There are many ways of accomplishing holiness. Some women roll in broken glass or thorns, welcoming their cuts. Others jump into hot bread ovens, relishing their burns. Many pray upside down for hours at a time, suspended by thin ropes that cut to the white of their anklebones. Those who have danced too much walk with thirty pebbles in their shoes. Those who have spoken too liberally keep bitter myrtle beneath their tongues.
The truly holy starve until they neither menstruate, defecate nor urinate. They do not feel heat nor cold. When they die, their spirits leave their bodies in an instant. In the grave, miracles happen. It is held that the body of a thin woman lasts far longer than that of a corpulent one. After all, there is far less flesh to rot.
She asks Father Joseph what a Christian is. He smiles, uncertain whether she is joking. He has instructed her twice - the first time lightly, the second severely - not to laugh, joke or tease. Despite the caution, only yesterday there were chuckles coming from the cell, giggles that kept Father Joseph’s mind off prayer. To laugh is part of her nature, he deduces. A part that cannot be ironed out, that possibly (though he needs longer to consider this; the idea being quite at odds with accepted behaviour) must be left intact.
He answers that a Christian is someone who fasts regularly.
Who receives annual Holy Communion.
Who has her children baptized.
Who pays tithes.
A female Christian must not touch the sacrament with her fingers.
As soon as she wakes, she picks up her cup. She cracks the ice that has formed overnight and sucks her finger to take away the stinging. At last she sips the water. It is refreshing, though it hurts her teeth.
At first, the pain pierces her tooth like a needle. By the second sip, it has spread so that her whole jawbone tingles and shivers. Stabbing darts shoot through the narrow channels that link her mouth to her ears. By the third sip, the tingling is a throbbing pounding that bumps through her head, vibrating its jellylike insides and shuddering the encasing skull bone. By the fourth sip, the pain is dispersing, flowing through the jugular arteries of her neck into the delta of blood vessels which span her chest, slowly fading until at last she can relax and enjoy the water that slips down her oesophagus into the warm, pink cavities of her upper stomach.
Ambit was the first to publish Sophie Frank with a short story called ‘Birth’ in 1987. Her first novel, The Mattress Actress, was published by Faber in 1993; stories, most of which Ambit published at some stage along the line, in Faber’s First Fictions Anthology 11.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The