AT THE WEST END OF THE GREAT NORman nave of St. Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, a tall, angular figure in a nondescript, threadbare old gray gown lurked by a pillar, intently watching the throng of merchants, pious ladies, servants, and clerics as they went about their business. St. Paul's was a good place to find work: at one pillar unemployed servants stood, waiting for offers, while at the north Si quis door, priests did the same thing more discreetly, posting neatly written little notices that they were available for any vacancy. Here at the west end twelve scribes of the cathedral sat at desks to write letters and draw up documents for the public; it was around this place that Brother Gregory had prowled for the last several days, waiting to snap up any copying business that might fall unattended from their tables. Two days ago he had written a letter for an old woman to her son in Calais, but since then there had been nothing, and Brother Gregory had begun to have indecent dreams of sausages and pig's knuckles.
It was odd how voices reverberated and were lost in the nave. From somewhere far away the thin thread of a melody descended, to be interrupted by the rattle of voices from one of the nearby bays. A knight had entered by the main door without remembering to remove his spurs. There was a chatter and a flurry as white-surpliced choirboys swarmed around him to demand their customary tribute. As Brother Gregory watched the scribes' desks, he noticed a young matron, followed by a serving girl, as she went up to the first desk, but the sound of their conversation, although it was fairly close, floated away and was lost. He watched her walk to each of the desks in turn. As she paused at the second desk, the clerk at the first desk turned to see what his colleague would do. When the second clerk looked down his long nose at her as if he smelled a bad fish, the first clerk laughed behind his hand. As she turned to go to the next desk, Brother Gregory could see her profile. Her chin was set hard.
A stubborn woman, thought Brother Gregory, as he watched her stand behind an old man waiting at the third desk. Stubbornness is a bad quality in a woman.
Then she passed to the next scribe. This one, a fat red-jowled cleric, laughed in her face. Then he leaned conspiratorially over to his colleague and whispered behind his hand. The next man whispered in turn to his colleague on the other side, who, when she stood at last before his tall desk, pointed over in Brother Gregory's direction. She turned suddenly and stared at Brother Gregory across half the width of the nave, to where he stood by his pillar. She looked a little puzzled and disappointed but then started toward him.
She didn't look as old as he'd supposed at first. Not more than a year or two over twenty, he thought. A dark blue cloak with the hood pulled up covered her dress entirely, revealing only the edges of her white linen veil and wimple. She looked well off: the cloak was lined in rich fur and fastened with a gold filigree brooch. She had come through the spring mud on foot, her wooden pattens were still strapped beneath her embroidered morocco-leather slippers. She was of medium height, but even on the high, carved pattens she seemed smaller than she actually was, for she was slender and fine boned. Brother Gregory thought he saw a sort of lost look on her face, but some women seem always to look a little confused. After all, many of them were incapable of dealing with a man's world and really should not be allowed out-of-doors alone. It couldn't be much of a job she wanted done, if all the cathedral scribes thought it was a joke, Brother Gregory mused to himself. Well, it would be better to take a small job than have none at all. These unpleasant dreams had been interfering with his meditations; maybe he'd get a good dinner out of this woman. Then he could continue his search for God undisturbed.
The woman hesitated for a moment, looking Brother Gregory up and down, and then said firmly, "I need a clerk who can write."
"That is self-evident," responded Brother Gregory, inspecting her more closely. Rich, very rich, he concluded. And self-willed too.
"I mean write, really write." They've played a joke on me, those cathedral clerks, thought Margaret. The man's a beggar--one of those vagabond thieves who dress up like friars to get money. He probably can't read and write at all. He'll make a great show of it for a while, until he's paid, she worried. Then he'll walk out, leaving me with pages of meaningless markings and everyone laughing at me for a fool. And I'll be lucky if he doesn't take the silver spoons as well. Horrid, horrid Voice! Why didn't it bother someone else?
"I can write," said Brother Gregory, with calm arrogance. "I can write in Latin, French, and common English. I will not, however, write in German; it is a barbaric tongue that curdles the ink."
He speaks properly, thought Margaret. Not like a peasant or a foreigner. I'll try him. So she plunged on: "I need a clerk who can write a whole book."
"A copyist for a book of prayers? I can do that."
"No--a book, a book about women. A book about me."
Brother Gregory was shocked. He was dimly conscious, too, of an amused glitter in several pairs of eyes at the scribes' desks, as they watched the negotiations from a distance. Brother Gregory glowered at the woman. She was spoiled to the bone. What foolish rich man was indulging these insane fantasies? Clearly she thought that money would buy everything, even a man's integrity. He was as courteous as possible under the circumstances, but soon enough he sent her off under the sharp eyes of the cathedral scribes.
As Margaret turned to go, she looked back intently at him, and a shrewd look of calculation passed over her face. It was the arrogance that had caught her attention. All the ones who can really read and write are like that, she thought. She watched intently as Brother Gregory stood at his full height and looked down his nose at her, as if he had a hundred dinners waiting for him, and her work didn't interest him in the least. Her eyes followed him as he turned to see if he could find other business.
By late that afternoon Brother Gregory's luck hadn't turned, and he wandered disconsolately into the muddy churchyard. He was feeling rather hollow inside, and the bare branches and the section of the church wall above his head seemed to heave and whirl in the gray sky in a most unusual fashion. He had just stopped for a moment to lean against the churchyard wall when that woman again, who had seemed to come out of nowhere, was tugging on his worn sleeve, her maid standing behind her. He looked down at her while her face went on talking and talking, and followed her through a maze of alleys to a little bakeshop in Cheapside, where she seemed to think they could discuss her project in greater privacy. Here she sat Brother Gregory down in a corner and ordered quite a bit more food than she needed, which she placed in front of him. Brother Gregory ate very slowly, until the smoky bakeshop ceiling quit moving about, and all the while she pleaded with him in the most humble and self-effacing way. It didn't seem so wrong, what she wanted, especially if one took into consideration the fact that she'd been told to do it by a Voice. It just had to be seen in the right light and it wasn't so bad, not so bad at all. And so Brother Gregory agreed to come the next day to her husband's house by the river to begin the work.
The very next morning Brother Gregory threaded his way among the laden donkeys, horsemen, and merchants on Thames Street, following it as it wound along the bank of the river, searching for the house of Roger Kendall. The street was a favorite place for merchants who dealt in imported goods to locate their houses: Brother Gregory recognized the house of a noted vintner a few doors down from his destination. Then he stopped for a moment before an imposing, three-storied house that looked like the right place, inspecting it up and down. The front was crisscrossed with elaborately carved and brightly painted timber supports, and from the corners where the timbers joined, there stared out the curiously carved and gilded faces of angels and beasts, while under the high, pointed eaves, painted owls' faces were hidden at the roofline. The lead gutters at the end of the eaves were finished off with a pair of fancifully cast leaden gargoyles, whose open mouths formed the drain spouts.
Even from the street Roger Kendall's love of comfort was evident, and Brother Gregory could easily understand how his wife was so spoiled. The windows were unusual for a private residence: between brightly painted green and red carved shutters, there were panes of real glass, set in thick little circles joined together with lead. On the great timber above the front door, between two deeply cut crosses, the motto of the house had been carved beneath a representation of Kendall's coat of arms: dextra domini exultavit me.
Brother Gregory inspected the seal above the motto: yes, this was surely the place. It certainly looked like a merchant's seal: there was not a lion on it, and probably it wasn't even registered with the College of Heralds. Three sheep, a balance, and a sea serpent. The man certainly made it plain how he had made his money. Brother Gregory lifted the heavy brass door-knocker. In a few moments he had been shown to a place where he might wait in the great hall. As he sat on a bench, inspecting the painted seal on the chimney over the great hearth, his matted sheepskin cloak beside him, he wondered how long it would be before she tired of the project. After all, how much could a woman have to say? In a few days, perhaps a week, she'd find some new form of self-indulgence, and he could return to his meditations in peace. The firedogs glistened in the flames; the great hall was pleasant and warm. He could smell dinner being made in the kitchen beyond the wide screen at the end of the hall. Yes, with any luck, he could count on just a few days before he could set out again, newly fortified, on his search for God.
"Where do you wish to begin?" asked Brother Gregory.
"At the beginning, when I was little," answered Margaret.
"So you've been hearing voices since you were little?" Brother Gregory's own voice was bemused.
"Oh, no, when I was little I was just like everyone else. The only voices I heard were mother's and father's. They didn't like the way I was turning out. But that is the way it is with parents. Some children just work out better than others. So I thought I'd start there--with my family, and how things began differently than they ended."
"Very well, it is always best to start at the beginning," said Brother Gregory, with a certain irony, sharpening a quill with his knife. Margaret didn't notice anything odd about that statement at all. It seemed just right.
I suppose it was about two summers after our mother died that our lives took a new turning that set us on the very different paths we now tread. By "us" I mean my brother David and me, of course. I was a little girl, seven, or maybe six, if I recall it right. David and I were as close as two twins, even though he was a year younger. We did everything together. Our favorite things to do were sitting in our apple tree, eating apples and spitting the seeds down on the ground, and, at planting time, running about and screaming and waving our arms to frighten away the birds from the seed corn. Everyone said we were very good at that. With mother dead, father didn't care for us much, so we roved about together like a pair of wild things, speaking an odd language we had made up that nobody but us could understand. Even though he was a boy and I was a girl, we thought we could go on forever that way.
But nothing goes on forever, even if it seems like it at the time. Take our village, for example. It was as old as God's footprints in Eden, but it's gone now. The plague turned it into a sheep pasture. The only place it's the same is in my mind. I can still see the naked northern hills rising in jagged wedges behind the flat, tilled land on the valley floor, and the brook running like a narrow gash, separating the church, square, and the larger houses from the cottars' huts on the other side of the stone bridge.
Ashbury was at that time the least of the villages of the great Abbey of St. Matthew, but it was on the high road, and that should be counted a distinction. From our front door you could see the square Norman tower of the church beyond the trees, and the curve of the road before our house led directly to the churchyard. It gave our house a sort of prominence, even if it was not large. Father made us different too. He was freeborn and held his own land. And besides being the best bowman in the demesne, he was also the best piper and the best drinker in Ashbury, which always counts for a great deal in the country.
The day I'm thinking about was really the day all the changes started. After that nothing could be put back together again, even David and me--though it didn't all become clear to me until later. It was warm and summery, and David and I were sitting in the dusty road in front of our door. Two doors down Goodwife Sarah and her gossips were also sitting in the sun, chattering as they took turns using a fine-tooth comb on each other's hair. David and I were playing: we were seeing who could pick off the most fleas the quickest. I had pulled my skirt up to expose my shins above my bare feet, where I found three good-sized ones crawling leisurely up my leg. Quick as a flash I caught one, but the other two leapt away into the dust.
Excerpted from A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley. Copyright © 2006 by Judith Merkle Riley. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, 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.