If a raging lion were running through the street, wouldn’t a sensible woman shut herself in at once?
—Ancrene Wisse: A Guide for Anchoresses
Trans. Bella Millett
When you are twelve, see the face of Mother Mary, full of grace in the creases of your shower curtain. Get down on your hands and knees, clasp your hands together, and close your eyes, squeeze them tight, and then murmur the only prayer you can think of. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is Heaven. Forget what comes next and decide it might be okay to take another look—just the tiniest peek. Open one eye and see that yes, it is, yes! it’s Her! There is no mistaking that serene countenance, those hooded eyes, the tilted-down chin of humble obedience, the same one forced on you by the school photographer every September.
Stare at Her, one eye open, one eye closed, and try really, really, really hard to think nothing but grateful thoughts. Suppress all the questions rising up inside you, like why you? Why now? Why a shower curtain? Admit it is a ridiculous place for Her to appear, the face of your Lord and Saviour’s mother hovering above a row of cartoon hippopotamuses wearing purple tutus. Especially if others are to come and bear witness like they did when Her likeness appeared on the side of a building and on a piece of toast—or was that Jesus?
Hear a knock at the door and think for a split-second that they are out there already, a queue of the faithful, but it’s only your mother saying you’re going to be late for school. And that’s when you realize the conundrum facing you: you can’t get into the shower without disturbing Mother Mary, but you also can’t risk the wrath of your mother, a woman for whom cleanliness is next to godliness, a woman who would, at best, view your sighting of Mother Mary as one of your flights of fancy, but more likely as a sign of mental derangement.
Remember that you can be sly when you need to be. Crawl to the edge of the tub and slide your hand along the tiles, careful not to move the curtain. Turn on the water and then retreat what feels like a respectful distance away. As the linoleum clouds over with steam, kneel and pray for as long as you think it usually takes to get a shower, mimicking the movements just to be sure, pretend-sudsing up your belly three times since you can’t touch your chest or privates in Her presence.
Maintain the shower charade for six days. Each time you leave Her, exit with your heart in your mouth, never sure if she’ll still be there when you return. Keep the truth of Her close, tell no one, not your mother, not your teacher, not the girls who sometimes let you sit at their table in the lunchroom as long as you don’t try and talk to them. Run home to Her each day and cry out in relief when you see She’s still there. Let your out-of-breath, weary-limbed body sink to the floor, as you murmur thank you, thank you, thank you, though you’re not even sure for what, something about her belief in your belief in Her.
On the seventh day, lie when your mother, who is waiting outside the bathroom door, asks if you had a shower. Try to look innocent when she feels your towels, which are completely dry, an unforeseen flaw in your plan. Don’t flinch when she tells you to get into the shower. Immediately. “And I’ll be right outside the door listening,” she says. “Because the water makes a different sound if someone is in the shower versus someone who’s just pretending.” When you don’t move, she says she’ll count to ten.
As your mother begins counting, look at Mother Mary and implore Her with your eyes to intervene. Let her know that if She has something to say, something to ask, something to bestow, now would the time. When your mother reaches nine, nine-and-a-half, nine-and-three-quarters, rock back and forth, your prayer hands pressed together so tightly that the tips of your fingers burn white. Continue to plead with Mother Mary in your mind, beg Her to say something–anything–tell her you don’t know what to do, that you still don’t understand why She’s there, or why She picked you.
When She doesn’t reply and just looks at you more sadly as if you’ve failed Her as she always expected you would, fall into a heap on the floor and begin sobbing. Grab the bottom of the shower curtain to prevent your mother from pulling it back till your tug of war brings the rod crashing down. Your mother, unfazed, pulls the curtain away from you, puts the rod back up, and then turns on the water. When you crawl into the shower fully clothed, she says, “At least it’ll save on laundry.”
Sit in the tub and find the spot where you thought Her face had been. Gently press the curtain between your hands as if in prayer. Whisper I’m sorry as your tears mix with the water running down your face. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Spend the next few months trying to be kind of person Mother Mary would have chosen. Dress modestly in long skirts and blouses, and keep your nails and lips clean of the bubble-gum pink shine favoured by your peers.
Stumble upon an illustrated history of Julian Norwich. Read all that you can about her and women like her who withdrew from society to live a life of religious contemplation.
Decide that when you grow up, you want to be an anchoress.
Do a skit about Julian when your history teacher assigns you a project on remarkable women throughout history. Borrow a white nightie from your mother and rub baby powder into your cheeks and forehead to give yourself a sickly appearance. Recline on two desks while one of your classmates, dressed in a choir robe borrowed from church, dangles a string of plastic beads with a handmade popsicle-stick crucifix over your head. Take a shallow, croaking breath, and then look at the crucifix, and see it just as you imagine Julian did, the blood you’d drawn on with red marker actually seeming to pool and glisten and then sit up and cry, “He bleeds! He bleeds!”
When your teacher waves her one-minute warning sign, skip ahead to the moment when Julian is bricked into her cell. Stand like the statue of her you’d seen a picture of, a feather pen in one hand and in the other a dictionary you’d covered with brown paper and written Revelations of Love on in lop-sided calligraphy lettering. As your classmate piles books on top of each other to simulate the bricking in, speak an epilogue about the devotion Julian has inspired over the centuries, adding -eth to all the verbs so the speech sounds more old-fashioned and then conclude by quoting her most famous words: “‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
After class, when some boys stop you in the hallway, look at them suspiciously, especially Tommy Bullard, who’s always ignored you, but who now says that your skit was like a religious experience for him, too.
“Yeah, like the way the light came through the window behind you at the end? It seemed like, I don’t know, a sign from God or something.”
Flush with pleasure because you’d also felt it, that particular light shining on you—or maybe from within you?
“But can I ask you something?” Tommy leans in close. “Is it little pink polka dots on your panties or strawberries?”
Ask, “What?” as you try to back away only to find they have you surrounded.
“We got a bet, Trevor and me, about what kind of underwear you’ve got on under that see-through granny nightie.” He lifts the hem of the nightie with the toe of his sneaker. “We could see the colour but not the pattern.”
Pull the fabric tight against your legs and stutter something about needing to go, and then feel the cold rush of air on the back of your legs as Trevor yanks up the nightie and cries, “Polka dots! You owe me five bucks, man!”
Run to the office and tell the secretary you’re sick. Lie on a cot in the tiny, dark sick room and cry yourself into a feverish, hiccupy state. When your mother arrives, let her bundle you into her arms, the cold of outside still clinging to her navy-blue wool coat. “There, there,” she says. She runs her thumbs across both tear-crusted cheeks and then rubs your back using calming, circular motions. “Everything’s fine.”
Shake your head vehemently when she asks if it’s your stomach or if you’re hurt. Between sobs, tell her some kids were making fun of you for what you believed in. Wipe the snot dribbling out of your nose with your balled-up fists and say, “I’m not going back to class. Ever!”
“Don’t be silly.”
Throw yourself face down on the cot and bury your face in the pillow as you tell your mother, “I’m not being silly!”
Feel the one decisive final pat on the back your mother gives you as she tells you to get up, that it’s impossible to hide from your problems.
Think, Just you wait. For almost a decade, channel anything that might be taken for religious fervour into unwavering academic discipline. Get a Masters in female mystics of the Middle Ages. Enter the “real world” as your mother likes to call it and realize there are limited career opportunities for people with that kind of specialization. End up working a dead-end job as a receptionist at a publishing company, a job you know you should be grateful for, but there is only so much gratitude you can feel after two-and-three-quarter years at a job that was only supposed to be your foot in the door.
Feel for the first time that particular kind of sadness, a sadness that is like a physical thing you lug around on your back or cradle against your breast, a sadness that you know has another name, but one you can’t–you won’t–use. Let no one else see. Do all the things you are supposed to do when you feel sad. Exercise. Eat dark leafy greens and flax. Buy yourself a treat. Reconnect with sort-of friends from university only to realize you have even less in common than you thought.
Try going back to church. You hadn’t been since you were a teenager, not because you’d stopped believing but because it seemed none of the other church-goers believed enough, even your mother, who wore her religion lightly, her devotion more about choir solos and organizing church suppers than following the word of God.
Breathe in the dark wood of the pews slick with lemon-scented furniture polish, gently open the hymnal with paper as thin as tissue, pluck a small slightly stale cube of white bread for communion, and then pass along the wicker basket, just like the one you remember from your childhood church.
Feel how welcomed you are, everyone making a point of shaking your hand on the way out, and then the following week saying how pleased they were to see you again. Think of yourself as set apart, singled out. At least until another young couple arrive one Sunday, and you see this for what it is: a performance enacted for every new arrival. That really you are nothing special after all.
Enroll in a “Six Steps to Living More Bountifully” e-course with Gennifer, an online spiritual guru. She makes you keep a gratitude journal. It reminds you of how, when you were a child, your mother would make you count your blessings every time you refused to Turn your mouth up at the corners!
Write down three things you are grateful for in your journal each day. When it becomes a struggle, go back to the old standbys from your childhood. Two eyes, two ears, ten fingers, ten toes.
One day, when you’ve exhausted everything else you can think of, write I’m still alive, and then tear the page out, unable to bear it scratched down like that in hurried, embarrassed black ink. Feel awful for wrecking your beautiful journal. Go into the bathroom to confront your inner gremlin, what Gennifer calls the voice of doubt and negative self-talk in your head. Look at yourself in the mirror. Smile. Say, “You are happy.” Then say, “You are blessed. You are loved.” Pull up the corners of your mouth till you can see your teeth. You are happy. Ignore the ache in your cheeks and pull even tighter. You are blessed. Pull tighter still, four rounded brackets carved into each cheek. You are loved. An ache blossoms in your temple, but in her demo video, Gennifer said you need to stay like this, repeating the mantra, until you believe it and can feel love and joy and self-worth vibrating throughout your entire body.
You are happy, you are blessed, you are loved, you are happy, you are blessed, you are loved. Pull your lips even tighter to try and stop them trembling. You are happy you are blessed you are loved, you are happy you are blessed you are loved, you are you are you are—
Fall onto all fours, panting and shaking, like some wounded animal. Try to heave up your suffering. Tell yourself you must, you must, you must make yourself stop, even though you can’t, you cannot make it stop. Feel your heart constricting, tighter and tighter and tighter, hardening, though not to stone, to glass. Let this knowledge that you are a fragile thing, liable to break if not handled gently, calm you down, ease your breathing, dry your tears.
Unfollow Gennifer. Ignore the email you receive with the subject line You are NOT alone! when you skip your scheduled Skype chat with her. Delete the final email from her too, an automatic one that comes when you should have finished the six-week program, wishing you well on your journey but also offering 15% off her next workshop if you still aren’t living as abundantly as you want.
Get up. Get dressed. Go to work. Do an adequate job. Make sure everyone else thinks you’re fine. At home alternate between crying, sleeping, and staring dead-eyed at the TV.
Do this for weeks, for months, do it until the lines begin to blur, and you find yourself locked in your car on your lunch break sobbing and on the phone to your mother. “What’s wrong?” she asks, and you try to explain between sobs, but how can you tell her it’s nothing really? That all that happened was the woman who got the editorial assistant job you thought should have been yours walked by without so much as looking at you, even though you were giving her your best sure-you-got-the-job-I-was-much-better-qualified-for-but-do-I-look-bitter? smile. Her lack of polite reciprocation had made your throat dry up, and you were filled with such want, with such certainty that you wouldn’t be feeling like this if you’d only got that job, if you were the one who was oh-so busy and oh-so important that you had to rush back to your desk to eat your lunch, to munch on one of those sandwiches in a clear plastic triangle that you don’t even like, the bread inexplicably both stale and moist, the lettuce limp, the meat like a clammy tongue—though you’d like it if you were her, or at least you’d like the necessity of that kind of lunch because your job was so demanding and fulfilling that it didn’t leave you time to lock yourself in the car weeping.
Apologize to your mother between sobs. “I’m sorry…I can’t…stop…I’m sorry…I….” Eventually, the crying lessens, and you sniff up the snot, your hand braced across your forehead, and you apologize again into the silence on the other end of the phone. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
When you’ve got yourself calmed down, your mother says everything will be fine. She tells you not to think so much. “Go for a walk. The fresh air will do you good.” She also suggests everything you’ve already tried like making plans with friends or going to the mall to treat yourself to something nice.
Promise her you’ll try.
Instead, call her daily and sob into the phone since she is the only person you can trust to know you aren’t FINE. Do that for weeks even though you sense she is losing her patience with you, that she thinks this sadness is something you should be able to shake off, like a dog ridding itself of water. You know your mother loves you. Unconditionally. But if she could take you to a surgeon and have him cut out the worry and heaviness that lies just above your heart, you have no doubt she would.
Look up from your desk one day and see your mother standing there. “I’m taking you out to lunch,” she says. Smile like this is a nice surprise.
Sit in the car with your mother, both of you looking straight ahead not speaking as the keys hang idle in the ignition. Finally, your mother says, “Tell me what’s causing this.”
Bite into your trembling lip to stop the flood of tears and instead put on the brave face that your mother wants to see, but find it’s impossible to keep it in. Lean over and butt your head against the dashboard and force your hand over the aching void of your open mouth.
“Stop it!” Your mother clamps her hand on your shoulder. “Enough is enough. You have to get yourself under control. And you have to tell me what’s wrong.”
You’re hyperventilating so the words came out haltingly, three or four shallow breaths between each word. “It’s…I don’t…I can’t…It’s only…”
A sob stops the next word, which would have been you, so you say everyone instead. “Everyone told me— no—didn’t tell me maybe but…but…but made me feel…”
What can you say? Special? Chosen? It all sounds too ridiculous. Say, instead, “That things would be different for me. That I would be happy.” Feel your mother biting her tongue, trying her damnedest not to say that happiness is a choice. Before she can, blurt out, “You made me think it would be easy.”
“Oh, darling,” your mother says with a half-laugh. She squeezes your hand and passes you a tissue and then turns on the car. “I said you could do anything. That’s not the same thing at all.”
Spend months being fine again. Or at least pretending to be fine. And whenever you’re sad and get the urge to call your mother, pick up the phone and pretend to dial and then talk and cry to your imaginary mother on the other end of the line.
Find that a good way of coping for a while, at least until one day when you are already running late for work and have to stop for gas and then find yourself struggling with the pre-pay and with getting the little gas door thingy open. Notice a man in the car behind yours watching all of this, see the curve of his amused sneer, and feel the words you can’t, you mustn’t say, rise up into your throat. What the hell are you looking at asshole? Try to swallow them down, but find they won’t go, that they just sit there on your tongue, a tactless sour taste in your mouth.
Put your hand over your lips, run inside, and gesture to the cashier for the key. Spend the better part of an hour locked in the bathroom with a sign on the door FOUR CUSTOMERS ONLY, hugging the toilet as you vomit up all words you’ve been swallowing down for the past two and a half decades, ever since you’d learned the importance of holding your tongue. The tiles are cool and sticky against your legs. The words come up all jumbled, some im-s and un-s detaching and other unimportant articles and demonstrative pronouns disappearing altogether after too long sloshing round in the digestive juices of your stomach.
After a few tentative knocks, the cashier finally bangs on the door and tells you she’ll call the police if you don’t remove yourself from the premises. Emerge from the bathroom and place the key in the cashier’s waiting, cupped hand. Pretend not to be offended when she rubs it against her vest as if afraid what you have is catching.
Go home and spend most of the afternoon and evening dry heaving. Stick your fingers down your throat to bring up the last bit of self-loathing lodged in there. Answer the phone when your mother calls. Don’t tell her about the words, just that you have an upset stomach. “You need to eat so there’s something to come up,” she says.
There’s still plenty, you want to say—and almost do, nearly spewing into the receiver two decades of repressed recriminations about how she was a good mother, but maybe not the best mother for your temperament, that there’s only so much a if-life-gives-you-lemonades attitude can fix. Instead, put the phone on mute and retch all the words into a bucket while listening to your mother tell you to drink some warm ginger ale as that’s the best thing for an upset stomach. Decide to just get on with things, to do normal things, the sort of tasks a well-adjusted, well-functioning adult would have no trouble doing. Like grocery shopping. Make a list so it’s more manageable.
Get through produce, cleaning supplies, and then the pasta, rice and beans aisle without a hiccup. Give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back for coping so well.
Reach the beverage aisle. Look down at your list, which says Tea, which you don’t drink but which you’d thought you should since people always mention its calming effect. Look up at the shelves and see there isn’t just Tea, there is every kind of tea imaginable, dozens and dozens of different kinds. Resist the urge to sink down to your knees in the middle of the aisle and cry, Why must there be so much?
Pick up one box and then another. Wait for someone else to come so you can buy the same sort as her. Only when someone does finally come, it is a girl, probably nine or ten, and she’s not there for tea but for the syrup that makes your milk bearable. There are three different flavours, but she doesn’t hesitate, she goes right for the chocolate, which you admire.
Step in front of her when she goes to skip past you. “Could you do me a favour?” Smile so she knows you’re the kind of adult she can trust. “Would you pick one for me?” Wave your hand at all the tea. “Any one? Whichever you think would be good—or even which box you think is prettiest.” When the girl starts backing away, take hold of her wrist. “No, no, it’s fine, there’s no need to be frightened. I just need you to pick one, okay? Because I can’t. And you’re a smart girl, I can tell, and it’s not hard to pick one—well, it is for me, but it won’t be for you, so could you do that for me?” The girl shakes her head and tries to pull away. Tighten your grip, just a little. Try to pull her closer to the shelf. She fights to go the other way, her jelly shoes slipping so she slides down towards the floor, holding herself rigid like a plank of wood. Decide to change tactics. Say, “I like your shoes. I had some like that when I was your age, but my mother threw them out because she said they’d ruin my arches.”
Realize it was wrong to mention your mother as the girl cries out for hers. Put your finger to your lips and make shushing noises. “Look, it’s okay, I’m not crazy, I just need a bit of help, don’t you ever need someone to help you?” The girl blinks a couple of times before giving a tiny nod. Relax. Assure yourself everything is going to be fine.
Feel a sharp pain in the back as some woman shoves you against the shelf and yells, “Get your hands off my child!” Slide to the floor and sit there stunned, surrounded by boxes of tea as the girl’s mother continues screaming things at you like how you’re sick and people like you shouldn’t be allowed out in public.
The girl tugs on her mother’s arm. “It’s okay. She just needed my help.” The girl picks up one of the boxes, all dinted from the fall and holds it out to you. As you take the box from her outstretched hand, hear very clearly in your mind the words All shall be well.
As the mother hurries her daughter away, berating her for talking to strangers, gather the boxes that have fallen around you and stack them on top of each other. Build two neat rows, tall enough to hide you if you scrunch down a bit. Let a single joyous sob escape your lips. Why hadn’t you seen it before? All those years of trials and tribulations, the bone-deep sadness, the endless crying, the futile attempts to staunch your suffering. The girl’s mother is right: people like you aren’t supposed to be in this world. You’re meant for a different kind of life entirely.
Quit your job. Cancel your Internet. Give your landlord one year’s worth of post-dated cheques. Source a hair shirt online and buy a spare copy of Ancrene Wisse, a manual for anchoresses.
Bring in the bricks, a few at a time in a foldable shopping cart. One of your neighbours hears them clink as you ease the cart over the lip at the entrance of your apartment building. She gives you a certain look, but as her alarm gives way to a sad kind of knowing, realize it’s okay, you aren’t found out, she just thinks you have a different kind of problem.
Use the cart to bring in six months’ worth of canned goods. Neatly stack them in your bedroom by type, labels all facing outwards. Briefly wonder what will happen when the supply runs out, but then remind yourself He will provide.
Put all your worldly possessions into garbage bags to take to Goodwill. The same neighbour catches you lugging out four bags of business casual clothing and a box full of bottles of unopened congealed nail polish.
“Are you leaving us?” she asks.
Suppress the gurgle of laughter that rises in your throat. Yes and no, you want to tell her, a sphinx-like smile on your face. I’m leaving but not going anywhere.
Explain that you’re not moving out, just getting rid of stuff you don’t need anymore.
“I did that, too.” She holds the door open for you. “Where you give away all the things that don’t bring you joy.”
Consider asking if she feels happier now, though judging by her too-loud coral lipstick and the smell of alcohol on her breath, you’d guess not. Chastise yourself for judging her—are we not all His creatures?—and when she’s not looking, pinch the skin on the inside of your arm for having such uncharitable thoughts.
Board up the small window in your living room. Eventually, once you’ve fully adjusted, you plan to dispense spiritual wisdom through it as earlier anchoresses did and also accept replenishments, though you have already told yourself you can only accept anything you know in your heart to be a necessity, not a want.
Enrol in a bricklaying class. The tuition is covered by the government, one of those initiatives to get more women in the trades. All the other students are boys just out of high school or slightly older ones who never graduated. They draw cartoon penises on the desk or etch curse words into the not-wood-but-looks-like-wood laminate tops with their pencils or small knives.
Be frustrated with how clumsy your work is at first, the spaces between the bricks uneven, all the mortar oozing out. Attempt to patch it with extra cement, though your instructor and his trusty level are not deceived.
Apply yourself, so that with practice your work becomes neat, precise, and—most importantly for your purpose—solid. Your teacher compliments you, says he admires your dedication. At the last class he shakes your hand and tells you he looks forward to seeing you next semester. Smile as if you’re looking forward to it too, though you know you won’t be back. You’ve learned all you need to know.
Before bricking yourself in, call your mother to say goodbye. When she asks how you are, tell her you’re fine—no, actually, you’re good. Really good.
“Really?” She sounds surprised.
Shake your head vigorously, even though she can’t see it. Tell her the story you’ve concocted about work sending you on a month’s long leadership training program, a month being the time you’ve decided you’ll need to adjust and strengthen your resolve before anyone discovers what you’re really doing. There’s an email already written to your mother, an explanation of sorts, set to send once your period of acclimatization is over.
Your mother says, “How wonderful! I always knew they’d recognize your true potential.” Keep nodding as she talks, not so much in agreement, but more to swallow the lump developing in your throat, the truth of what you’re about to do wanting to come out. Luckily, your mother says she has to go, she was just rushing out the door to choir practice when you called.
Just as she’s about to hang up, say, almost as if it’s an afterthought, that you’ve heard the course is pretty intensive and you don’t know if you’ll be able to call much. Or at all.
“Don’t worry about me,” your mother says. “I’m just happy you’re happy.”
Mix the mortar and spread a line of it across the floor. Butter the side of the first brick with your trowel, lay it in the mortar, then press and tap it down. Do the same with the next brick, and then the next. Stop after the third brick and check the tops and sides are level.
Add two more bricks, and then place the sixth one on a towel. Line your bolster up at the brick’s halfway point, and tap it once with a hammer, the air filled with a satisfying ting. Turn the brick over, tap the chisel once again and continue turning and tapping a few more times till the brick cleaves apart. Tidy up the edges and then fill the remaining gap with the half-brick. As you do, offer thanks that the awkward U entrance way of your apartment, the hallway barely large enough to walk through when your hands were loaded down with shopping bags, is now a blessing, the perfect support for your structure.
Begin the second course, focusing on nothing but the wet, sandy scraping sound as you turn your trowel once, twice, three times through the mortar to freshen it. Spread about a foot and a half at a time, scraping the excess to form a triangle and then use the tip of the trowel to notch a line right down the centre of the cement so the bricks sit better. Repeat that till you reach the end of the row, and then go back to the beginning and start again, spreading the mortar, and then placing, pressing, and tapping each brick in place, all the while allowing only one thought into your head, a kind of prayer: Hold.
Ignore the ache in your arms and neck as you reach the final row. Chisel bricks in half lengthwise to fill the gap that remains between the ceiling and the wall. It is fiddly work, but you don’t rush or grow impatient. As you slot the final brick in place, feel inside yourself the same kind of sealing up, an unyielding certainty in your gut that now everything will be okay.
Wake in the middle of the night fearful that it’s all been just a dream. Jump out of bed and run to the wall and rejoice. Touch it, smiling, half-laughing. Press all your weight into it and feel it hold you, hold you strong and upright and think how nothing in your life has held you up like this. Feel giddy and think you should have bought yourself some champagne to celebrate, that’s what people do, isn’t it? Though not you, no, it’s not appropriate for this life you’ve chosen, but you should have planned something in that spirit, something with the fizz of celebration. Sprinkle yourself and the wall with a few drops of holy water.
Begin your morning prayers. Say In the name of the Father, then Come, Creator, then the prayer about Jesus deigning to be born by a virgin. Blink back tears of joy as you hail the Lord for the reward of your expectation and hail Him again for the consolation after your long and patient suffering, for it was a long time, and you did suffer, trying to make yourself fit, a square peg forced into a round hole.
Commemorate God’s five wounds, and then kneel and bow to the image of our Lady and your few relics, including the dented box of tea the girl gave you and Julian’s popsicle stick cross, which you’ve kept for all these years. It is a ferial day so prostate yourself to say Our Father and the Apostle’s Creed, and then straighten and say the next prayer, making the sign of the cross on your lips with your thumb, the mixture of winter dryness and your ragged cuticle setting your lips on fire.
When you can’t remember what comes next, look at the flow chart with the order of prayers on post-its you stuck on one of the other walls. Your stomach growls, but since you know part of your work is suppressing these base, bodily desires, continue your nine-hours of morning prayer, not taking any of the shortcuts the Ancrene Wisse tells you that you can if you’re unwell or can’t remember the entire series or just don’t have time. Laugh at how ridiculous that idea is. Not have time? You have nothing but time.
At mid-day, fill the sink with one inch of cold water and wash—so refreshing!—and then make some steel cut oats to break your fast. Say another round of prayers before you eat. By the time you are done, the oatmeal is cold sludge, but gulp down each spoonful with gratitude on your lips. Tell yourself how lucky you are.
After eating, scour your cell with a ladle full of water and a rag, a prayer always on your lips. Move inch by inch from one end of the kitchen to the other on your hands and knees, the small repetitive circular motions you make with the cloth putting you in a meditative state. The landlord had laid a new kitchen floor just before you moved in months ago, and the glue has continued to seep up through the thin cracks, lines of yellow beads that hardened or tacky smears that turned dark grey with stuck-on dirt. Go at these spots with a mania, scrubbing and scraping the joins until there is a pleasant ache in your arms. Think, What a useful way to spend a life.
Wring out the cloth and then begin your next round of prayers. This time try to do it without your cheat sheet. End up peeking. Say an extra 25 Hail Marys as penance for your forgetfulness. Remind yourself repetition will make it second nature. You are new to this, you are trying, that must please Him.
Wait a moment for a reply or some sort of sign. There is nothing. Tell yourself it is to be expected, this is only your first day, you have not proved yourself worthy enough yet.
Finish your evening prayers, the words of grace and gratitude still on your lips as you lie down on the mattress. Make a single black mark on the wall beside your bed and then fall asleep.
Try very hard to take all the sorrows of the world into your heart, to meditate on the poor, the sick, the martyrs, but really all you can think about is how thirsty you are. When was the last time you had something to drink? A few drops may have trickled down your throat this morning when you brushed your teeth, but before that, nothing for a day and a half. You’ve denied yourself food and water since you’ve been having trouble remembering your prayers. Grace will come through deprivation.
Lay face down on the floor and ask forgiveness since you have been thinking about yourself rather than others. You have to do this a lot: prostrate yourself on the floor and say Lord have mercy for being weak. For being tired. For being forgetful. It gets you down, your inability to be a model anchoress, and you shake your head in exasperation when you can’t remember which prayer comes next or whether to make the sign of the cross or kiss the floor after a certain devotion. You were always like this, thinking you could run before you could walk, forgetting that mastery takes practice, requires commitment.
Kneel and clasp your hands together and ask God to come into your heart. Say your soul is a narrow, ruined house and implore him to repair it. For who can cleanse it but You, Lord?
Sprinkle yourself with holy water. Look at the vial, notice you’ve been too liberal with the precious liquid, a third of it gone in only—how many days has to been? Five? Maybe four? You gave away your clock with all your other worldly possessions, and without even a sliver of outside light, you’re having trouble keeping track of time. While asking His forgiveness, fill the vial with tap water, diluting it, yes, but it’s not like you can run out and get some more.
Kneel again and ask for mercy. Crack yourself open, trying, as you’ve been instructed, to forget the world, forget your body, forget yourself, and sit ready to embrace He who will enter the chamber of your breast.
But there is still nothing, just that same familiar hollowness.
Sink to the floor and contemplate the wall. How sturdy it is. How neat. Near the ceiling it’s a bit rough; the rest, though, is a thing of beauty. Think of how proud your teacher would be if he could see it, but then remember that this is a wicked thought, there is nothing from the outside that should be worthy of your attention, particularly this need for approval. Prostrate yourself on the floor again and beg forgiveness, swallowing down the carpet fibers that get stuck to your tongue.
Lie in bed. Tell yourself to get up. Find that you can’t.
Watch a spider that’s sitting in the corner above you. You should, you really, really should, get up and crush it with a Kleenex, cleanliness being next to godliness (so says the Ancrene Wisse as well as your mother). But what harm is it doing really? As long as it keeps to its corner and you to yours. You do wonder how it got in. It couldn’t have breached the wall. Could it? No, you’re certain it couldn’t. A stowaway then. Is the world overwhelming for you too?
Wonder if you said that out loud.
Let your head sink back onto the pillow and imagine what sorts of tribulations led Gertrude (that’s what you name her) to seek refuge with you. Maybe she was ridiculed because she had to self-amputate a spindly leg to escape a predator and it never grew back properly. Or perhaps her webs were always lopsided, and the other spiders mocked her for failing at what should come naturally.
Enough of this silliness. You should get up. You should kill the spider and then scour your cell top to bottom. A tidy home is the sign of a tidy mind. And has the Ancrene Wisse not instructed you to control your thoughts, told you to beat away the filthy, stinking hell dog of ungodly negativity?
But you can’t. You can’t get up.
Look up to commiserate with Gertrude, but she is gone, long gone, not even a few wispy bits of web left in the corner to prove she was ever there at all.
Wake to find your cell full of flowers. Blood red poppies, butter-yellow irises, flushed pink peonies, the colours so vibrant, so alive. Reach out to touch them. As soon as your fingers brush a petal, all their edges brown, shrivel up, the damp, sickly sweet smell of rotting flowers making you gag. Press your cheek up against the barricaded window and breathe deeply.
The fallen petals begin moving. They adhere together and form a red, poppy-petal-eyed snake that slithers across the floor. Stand, petrified, as it wraps itself around your legs and waist and then encircles your chest, squeezing hard, leaving you breathless. Cry out, “Help! HELP!”
Slap your hands over your mouth. The snake, the petals, the smell—all are gone, but your cry continues to echo through the cell. Stand absolutely still as you wait to see if anyone has heard you.
Nearby a door slams. Huddle in the corner and make yourself as small as possible. A tentative knock on your door. Press your hands tighter over your mouth and nostrils so whomever it is cannot hear you breathing. Wait for another knock, a burning tightness in your chest and throat from the smothered breath. Ask Him to have mercy on you, even though it’s all your fault.
There is another knock but further away now, probably on your neighbour’s door. Collapse to the floor, shaking with relief and gratitude but also with the knowledge you are undeserving of both.
Re-dedicate yourself to your devotions. Speak, sing, praise, prostrate, supplicate, stand, fall, do it again, do it until you have done it right. Do not give into your body’s desire for food or drink or sleep. Do it all while thinking, See how faithful I am? How deserving?
Awake to the sound of knocking. No. Pounding. You are groggy and think your neighbour must be having some work done, but then you realize someone is banging on your door.
Stumble out of bed and crawl over to the wall. There is a cracking sound, followed by a hard, insistent pushing. You can’t help but giggle when you hear one of them say, “She must have something against it.”
Someone must have got suspicious. The mailman, maybe. The flyers probably built up, even though you’d specifically posted a sign: No junk mail!
They are having some type of conference. There are at least two of them, maybe three. One of them seems to be in favour of giving up. “She can’t be dead. There’d be more of a smell.”
Another replies, “Oh, really? How many dead bodies have you found?”
There is some talk of an axe, and then it gets quiet.
Press your hands to the wall and speak the prayer O Lady, holy Mary into the bricks. Mouth the words so if one of them stayed behind he can’t hear you.
There are the voices again, but you can’t make out what they’re saying. Turn your ear against the wall, the brick scratching your earlobe. The holes in them, gifted to you on your eleventh birthday by your mother, will close up soon. Your mother had held your hand even though you’d pretended you didn’t need her to.
There is a whacking at the door now, a steady thudding, along with the sound of splintering wood, then a cry of “Dear Jesus!” followed by more pounding as they hack away at the door in a manic I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing! kind of way. And then suddenly it stops, and all is quiet, the hole they’ve made big enough to reveal your handiwork.
One of them—you recognize the voice now, it’s your landlord—says, “Well, she sure as hell ain’t getting her security deposit back.”
Kneel on the floor of the bathroom atoning, your Ancrene Wisse open in front of you. Spend hours shivering, knees buckling as you beg for His intervention.
The men have gone now, but you know they’ll be back. They have found you out sooner than you expected, and you know this is your punishment for being lazy, for not learning your prayers, for saying the words in your head but not feeling them in your heart. You are weak. Even in the midst of your penance you are failing, catching yourself starting to doze. Rations of a quarter cup of oatmeal, a handful of beans, one melba toast, and a tablespoon of canned fruit daily were probably not enough to sustain a life of religious devotion, at least not initially. What you wouldn’t give for some coffee. Pinch yourself hard on the inside of your arm, the flesh already tender from all the other wants you’ve tried to pluck out of your skin.
Something startles you, a movement you catch out of the corner of your eye, and without thinking, you smack the palm of your hand down on the open page of your Ancrene Wisse, smooshing Gertrude. Try rubbing the guts away with the tips of your fingers but find you can’t get the page clear, the leftover innards the same greyish silver of nearly erased pencil marks. When your eyes well up, press your balled-up fists into the sockets for crying is not allowed.
Your whole body trembling, lean forward and pick up a pen from beside the book. On the inside of your arm, write some words from your manual. Press hard so your skin will absorb the most important lesson you still have to learn: “If you endure suffering, you have deserved worse, and everything you suffer is entirely your own fault.”
The wall cracks apart after they’ve pounded on it for five minutes. Maybe more. You’d like to think it was more.
Crawl into the corner and cover yourself with the duvet because you can’t stand to see the bricks tremble. Press your hands against your ears because it’s too loud, far too loud, and you were stupid, so, so stupid, you should have built a whole series of walls, that’s how you should have spent your time, making yourself secure, not in prayer or contemplation or prostrating yourself on the floor. You should have built wall after wall after wall after wall, so maybe then they would have grown weary of trying to break through to you.
There is a pause, and then a kind of heaving, followed by the sound of bricks smashing against the floor. Pull the duvet down just enough to see how big a hole they’ve made, and see instead your mother stepping through the wall, the dust from the broken bricks settling on her coat.
She walks over and gets down on the floor beside you, and she hugs you, hugs you tighter than she ever has before, and you stay like that for you don’t know how long, and not once does she tell you that everything’s going to be okay.