The November wind crested our walls, tossing up grave dust that stung our eyes. My daughters flinched, ashen-faced in the dread we shared. What would happen to us now that we had committed such an outrageous act of sedition? The prelates' retribution would be merciless.
Foreboding flared again, the fate awaiting us as terrifying as the devil's giant black claw rearing from the hell mouth. Somehow I must summon the warrior strength to battle this evil. Seize the sword to vanquish the dragon. Maximus's ordeal proved only too well what damage these men could wreak. In a true vision, Ecclesia, the Mother Church, had appeared to me as a ravished woman, her thighs bruised and bloody, for her own clergy had defiled her. The prelates preached chastity while allowing young men to be abused. In defending the boy, my daughters and I risked sharing his fatebeing cast out and condemned. The prelates would crush my dissent at all costs. Everything I had worked for in my long life might be lost in one blow, leaving me and my daughters pariahs and excommunicants. How could I protect my community now that I was so old, a relic from another time, my once-powerful allies dead?
To think that seven years ago I had preached upon the steps of Cologne Cathedral and castigated those same men for their fornication and hypocrisy, their simony and greed. O you priests. You have neglected your duties. Let us drive these adulterers and thieves from the Church, for they fester with every iniquity. In those days I spoke with a mighty voice, believing I had nothing to lose, that the prelates would not trouble themselves over one old nun.
The men I'd railed against gathered like carrion crows to wreak their revenge and put me in my place once and for all. It was not my own fate that worried me, for I have endured much in my life. This year or the next, I would join the departed in the cold sod and await judgment like any other soul. But what would become of my daughters? How could I die and leave them to this turmoilwhat if this very abbey was dissolved, these women left homeless? A stabbing pain filled me to see them so lost, their faces stark with fear. Our world was about to turn upside down. How could I save these women who had placed their trust in me?
"Daughters, our work here is done," I said, as tenderly as I could, giving them leave to depart and seek solace in their duties in the infirmary and scriptorium, the library and workroom.
Leaving the graveyard to its desolation, I pressed forward to the rampart wall overlooking the Rhine, the blue-green thread connecting everything in my universe. Nestled in the vineyards downriver and just out of view lay Eibingen, our daughter house. Our sisters there, too, would face the coming storm. Then, as I gazed at the river below, an icy hand gripped my innards. A barge approached our landing. The prelates had wasted no time.
I was striding down the corridor when Ancilla, a postulant lay sister, came charging toward me, her skirts flapping.
"Mother Abbess! We have a visitor."
The girl's face was alight with an excitement that seemed at odds with our predicament. She was a newcomer to our house and, as such, I'd spared her the grim work of digging up the graveyard.
"A foreigner! He doesn't speak a word of German."
My heart drummed in panic. Had the prelates sent someone from Rome? Oblivious to my trepidation, Ancilla seemed as thrilled as though the Empress of Byzantium had come to call.
"The cellarer will bring up the very best wines, won'
Excerpted from Illuminations by Mary Sharratt. Copyright © 2012 by Mary Sharratt. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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