The dear little cottages that were the gatekeepers to Nantes were receding rapidly as I slipped into the tunnel of trees--the worst part of the journey to Machecoul. Out of the light, and into the darkness. One cannot help but feel very small among these barked giants, whose gnarly underbranches could reach out at any moment like the devil’s fingers to draw me into the dark rictus of some knothole, where I would melt in the eternal agony of my own sins.
As always, I pray, for there is little else to do. Dear God, do not let them take my thumbs, for without my thumbs I shall not be able to grasp the needle, and a life without embroidery is unthinkable. With each step, I shove my hands deeper into the folds of my pocketed sleeves. My precious fingers disappear completely, safe again.
They find the letter. My fingertips discern small wear spots along the folds in the parchment, despite the relative recency of its arrival here from Avignon. It came among other important papers sent from his Holiness to my own maitre, Jean de Malestroit, who as Bishop of Nantes is privy to so many of God’s deepest secrets. Though I am his closest companion, I cannot begin to understand the weighty matters that his Eminence is bidden to consider by His Holiness, nor in truth do I wish to. I am driven by some desperate maternal urge to bypass the cares of the world in favor of the precious thoughts of my firstborn. The date, written in my son’s sweet strong hand in one corner, was March 10, 1440, seven days previous. I skip his long-winded blessing--he is a priest, after all--and recite the rest in my head as I walk.
There is most excellent news, abrupt and unexpected. I am now fully a scribe to his Grace; no longer must I work under another brother, but instead answer directly to the Cardinal himself. Increasingly I am called to his chambers to record important business. He seems through some miracle to have taken me under his wing, though I fail to understand why he finds me fit for such an honor. It gives me hope that I will be anointed with official advancement sooner rather than later. . . .
How wonderful, how precious, how . . . how abysmally insufficient; I would rather have had the man himself by my side. But his Eminence Jean de Malestroit abhors complaint, so I shall not indulge therein, may God forbid that he should abhor me for that weakness. I continue my recitation, which is perhaps not appreciated by the squirrels and foxes, who are my only listeners. It gives my steps a reassuring firmness, however false it might be.
I think of you every day and rejoice in knowing that you will be here in Avignon in not too many months, to see firsthand how rich my life has become. I am forever grateful to Milord Gilles for his influence in securing this position for me when I was but a young brother with limited prospects. . . .
My own gratitude is tinged with bitterness. Lord Gilles de Rais’s beneficence was such that I, once his own nurse, must remain here in Brittany, and my son, practically his own brother, is many days’ ride away in Avignon. It seems almost as if he had some purpose in separating us.
But how could that be?
You must report more of the goings-on in Nantes in your next letter, Maman; we have had a pilgrim here recently who spoke of events in the north, of this nobleman’s tribulations and that lord’s triumphs and that lady’s romance; we are eager to have these bits of news. But I find myself especially intrigued to know the meaning of a ditty he recited--the entirety of the lyrics escapes me, but in part it was, “Sur ce, l’on lui avait dit, en se merveillant, qu ‘on y mangeout les petits enfants.”
. . . as for that, someone had told him, marveling, that they eat small children there . . . I did not know what it meant, nor, in truth, did I wish to. Certainly not in this moment, when I was in sure danger of being eaten myself, by God alone knows what vile and monstrous beast. I know better than most that such beasts are here, often unseen, their evil jaws patiently agape.
A blessed sliver of light snuck through the trees and flickered--had a bird settled on a branch, or was it merely my own long-held breath, expelled too rapidly? I am always desperate for light; all the world speaks with hope of the time after the wars end, if they ever do, when illumination will not be such a luxury as it is now. We seldom waste unnatural light in looking upon each other when there is the thinnest thread of daylight left, for there are wiser uses--indeed, there always are for the little graces of life than what we foolishly choose to spend them on.
Once light was supplied in abundance at the pleasure of Lord de Rais in his residence at Champtoce and I--in those days, Madame Guillemette la Drappiere, wife to Milord’s loyal retainer Etienne--could bathe in it almost at will. Now I depend on God to supply radiance, though I do not like God these days as much as I did before I became la Mere Superieure, or, as the stern Jean de Malestroit is fond of calling me, ma soeur en Dieu. A better woman than I might appreciate the sanctuary of an adequate--nay, even abundant--existence. With so many women spitting out their teeth for lack of nourishment, I ought to be overjoyed at my good fortune. But it is not the life I long for, not the life I had and loved. Nevertheless, when my beloved husband died, practically all but myself agreed it was the best thing for me.
My sweet Etienne fought bravely with Lord de Rais under the banner of the Maid in the great battle of Orleans on a day when many valiant men were lost. He was pierced through the thigh by an English bowman, God curse their uncanny skill. His leg festered, as it often goes with deep wounds. The midwife--alas, we had no physician, though no one should doubt that she was near as good as one--insisted that to save his life the limb must be removed. But he would not consent.
How can I, a soldier and woodsman, properly serve my Lord de Rais as a cripple? he said to me.
His was not the honorable battlefield demise that all warriors crave in their secret hearts, but a lingering slide into pain and degradation. When he was finally summoned to the soldier’s reward, my neglected place of service in Lord de Rais’s house had already been given over to a less distracted woman. Had I inherited property, I would have been assured of another husband. God got me instead.
I am careful to make myself useful now, for I could not bear to be displaced again. I am a quiet shadow to his Eminence, who as both Bishop of Nantes and Chancellor of Brittany serves two demanding masters: one unspeakably divine, the other brutally mortal. Which master rules him more completely is often determined by which one’s interests are more compatible with his own at the moment, but in the thirteen years of my service here I have come to respect him greatly despite that regrettable flaw of character, which few but I can see.
Still, it is not the life I long for.
“I must go to Machecoul,” I told him that morning. “A few small tasks, some supplies . . .” I explained. “All can be found in the market there.”
“Well, Machecoul is not an overly long journey, but perhaps you should consider sending one of the younger women.”
I did well in hiding my annoyance. “It is a good walk, but the day is turning out to be lovely, and I shall be quite fine, I am sure. And I would rather choose the things I need for myself than trust another’s eye.”
“FrÃ¨re Demien can be spared from his regular duties today. . . . Perhaps he might help you carry your purchases.”
I had sleeves enough for whatever I might buy. “He will resent being parted from his trees. And nothing will be heavy--I need needles, and a few threads. Some of your surplices require repairs in certain colors, ones we cannot seem to dye properly ourselves.”
“Ah, yes, well, those are things about which I understand very little, may God be praised. I will happily leave it all to you.” He raised one side of his unbroken eyebrow. “And whatever other business you might have beyond your acquisitions.”
He waited for my reaction. I could almost feel his desire to press me further on the matter, but I responded with only a contained nod.
“Well, be about it then, but take care not to overtax yourself.”
“Of course, Eminence. I shall not ruin myself for my duties here.”
“Indeed,” he grunted. He dismissed me by returning his attention to the text before him, but when I was halfway out the door I heard, “May God go with you.” It brought a smile to my face.
Our abbey is an ancient building, and when it was raised, the people were somewhat smaller-limbed than we are now, or so we glean from the bones that lay moldering in our crypts. One can learn a lot from bones, and teeth--one of my sons had a chip in his tooth that I would know anywhere. In any case, the proportions of my room, and within it the bed, are quite close. I chose it for its position on the inside of the courtyard as the daylight is always strong. In the winter one of the brothers stretches an oiled parchment over the opening to keep out the drafts, for I could not bear to have it darkened by a tapestry for so many months. There is not much to see, in truth, but there is light, and I am not subjected to the sound of cart wheels rattling by in the predawn hours as farmers go to market along the outer wall.
But it is not always intrusions from outside that tarnish one’s sleep. Things I did not wish to think about had disturbed my rest through a long and fitful night--ghosts, demons, cruel monsters in the dark forest--the nightmares of a child in the grips of an imagined witch. I am long past the time when withering menses compel a woman to rise wide-eyed in the smallest hours and then pace in a state of agitation until the cock crows; those indignities have come and gone, and now my sleep is seldom interrupted, either by wakefulness or dreams. But when I awoke this morning, my eyes were crusted shut. I must have wept in what sleep I managed, but I could not recall having done so.
Often I will kneel beside my pallet at bedtime, then squeeze my eyes tightly shut and clasp my hands together as a child would do. I leave the door to my chamber open, so that if someone should happen by I would be seen in what appeared to be a fervent state of devotion. On most occasions I do it for appearance’s sake, but last night my devotion bordered on fervency as I pleaded with God to let Madame le Barbier find her son, if God is not the cruel jest I lately think Him to be.
As I towed a column of my sisters back to the convent to break our fast, FrÃ¨re Demien caught up with me.
“God’s blessings on you, Mother.”
He always said Mother as if he truly meant it. I was unspeakably grateful. “And you, Brother.”
“It is a fine day, is it not? Though there is a chill. Last night as well.”
He had a galling exuberance to him, but it was simply an expression of his youthful vitality, and therefore completely forgivable. I often forgot that he was a priest; minus the robes he would be a young squire in full flower--had there been more to inherit from his family, he might have had a small estate of his own. For a man who had not chosen his own vocation, he performed his duties admirably--and with annoying vigor.
“When you are of an age with me, you will like the morning chill less than you do now,” I promised him. “But the sun will burn it off quickly enough.”
“A good thing--his Eminence says you shall be making a journey to Saint-HonorE today. A quaint parish. But I was surprised that our maÃ®tre would release you.”
So Jean de Malestroit had already enlisted my young cohort to accompany me. I was, confoundingly, a bit pleased for a moment--that is, until the annoyance set it. “This is a veil, not a chain,” I said. “May I not go on a journey of my own choosing?”
“Well, with Pax so close at hand, I wonder at the reason.”
After a pause, I said, “No reason beyond the purchase of a few necessities.”
“Ah,” he said. He made a wise little smile. “I only ask,” he said, “because this morning you seem . . . drained. Tired, perhaps. As if you were carrying some burden.”
I had not inspected myself in our one glass--but I guessed that the sleep-tears of the previous night had taken their toll on my face. I lowered my gaze and kept silent as we walked.
“Is there something you would like to confess, Mother?”
Bless me, Brother, oh thou who art younger than my own son, for I have committed the grave transgression of excessive curiosity, and also the sin of overabundant emotion.
“No, Brother, but I thank you. My sins are not too momentous today.”
“The day is young,” he said.
“And there is hope yet for misbehavior.” We laughed on parting.
Thereafter, the morning’s housekeeping tasks fell to my sword of determination, for which there were dark looks aplenty from the young brides of Christ who labored on the church’s behalf under my orders. As I made my way through the markets of Nantes before leaving the city, I could not help but notice that everything I supposedly needed was available right there, probably in greater assortment than I would find in Machecoul. No doubt Jean de Malestroit knew this, despite his declaration of happy ignorance. I should have been more clever, I chided myself.
The chunk of cheese and slab of bread I had stowed in my sleeve began to thump against my leg. I ceased my recitation of my son Jean’s letter and began to hum a little tune in time with the rhythm. Sounds emerged from between the trees--crackling twigs, rustling leaves, the odd animal chirp. With every step, I half-expected the unknown that waited in the thickets on either side of the path to leap out and claim me. I thought of Madame le Barbier, who must have traversed this wood the night before after her futile plea to Jean de Malestroit; accommodations along this route were scarce and likely too dear in price even for a prosperous tradeswoman. She had left the abbey well after sunset by the light of a single torch. Surely her arm must have ached abominably by the time she reached this point.
Excerpted from Thief of Souls by Ann Benson. Copyright © 2002 by Ann Benson. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.