The path I take is a dark one. It is narrow and cold, even in the days of summer. Forged of rock and mortar, it has been worn smooth by tender hands feeling their way through the void.
I need no wall or candle to guide me. I know the way by heart. I count 193 steps from the kitchen to her tower room. I carry her meals, mostly broth and bread. Sometimes, when Suora Agnese allows — or when she is not looking — I bring the abbess her favorites: fruit, honey, and mead. It is the job of a converse but to me it holds the greatest honor in the abbey. For the woman I serve is the closest soul to God I have ever known.
160 … 161 … 162 … 163 …
The older suore say each rock in the wall is payment for a sin committed by the men who built the abbey. They say the battered souls are entombed in the walls for all eternity. Sometimes, when I cannot see before me, and the only sound I hear is my own heart, I imagine that the men themselves are buried within the walls and it quickens my step.
180 … 181 … 182 …
When I reach her door I knock softly and wait a few moments for her reply: “Come in, child.” The voice is softer this morning but it still holds the highest power in the abbey. The abbess always says, “A man shouts to be heard but God whispers and is heeded.”
I pull the iron ring on the heavy wooden door and step into her room. It is simple with few items of comfort. The sun streams brilliant light through a tiny window as though it enjoys rankling the darkness. I see that her bed curtain is drawn open and she is sitting up. Her hair brushed. Her face, fresh and clean. She insists on washing herself, still. The burden of having to be washed by another is one she does not yet have to bear.
“Good morning, Mother Abbess,” I say as I set her tray on the table beside her bed.
“Good morning, Elisabetta. How does the day find you?”
“Very well. And you? There are roses in your cheeks.”
“Do you feel you are witness to a miracle?” she says with a sly smile. I have become accustomed to her humor. At one time the same remark would have stopped me in my tracks.
“I pray the surprise I have for you will make you happy.” I take a pear I have hidden under my cloak and hand it to her. “I took it when Suora Agnese turned her back.”
“That’s stealing, Elisabetta. And thank you.” She smiles as she holds the sweet, fresh pear in her weathered hands. She takes a deep breath of the fruit’s smell and closes her eyes and suddenly she feels lost to me.
“Are you alright, Mother?” She does not hear me. “Mother?”
“It was so very long ago and yet …”
“The day a young girl arrived at the abbey. She was so spirited that she frightened everyone. Some say she had the arrogance of nobility but she did not owe her strength to lineage. Her character was of her own design.”
“How can that be?”
“God makes the ivory, child, but he does not carve it. Do you understand?”
I nod yet I know not of what she speaks. I say nothing more, for a nod is as big of a lie as I dare tell to the woman before me. She always knows the truth anyway.
“My knife, please, child.” she says.
By now I know better than to bring a knife from the kitchen. I open the drawer in her table and find the knife she speaks of. Small and sharp, with an ornate handle made of silver. It is not the plain knife of a nun, but the relic of a different life. I give it to her and see how the familiar handle fits perfectly in her hand.
“You look half starved. Does Suora Agnese not feed you?”
“Alas, I cannot stop her.” At this she laughs and cuts a slice of the pear and hands it to me.
“Here, then, Elisabetta, we shall share it.”
The pear is so sweet and simple and full of life. So different from the dry, tasteless meals that Suora Agnese labors over.
“Tell me more. About the girl.”
“Do you like my stories or is it your chores that you are trying to avoid?” She fixes her gray eyes on mine, holding me in a stare that has crumbled many a converse and novitiate alike.
“Oh, no, I would never -”
She laughs and says, “I am teasing you, Elisabetta. What chore could be more tedious than tending to the old woman in the tower?”
“That is not so. Visiting you is my favorite part of the day.”
“You are very kind, so I shall choose to believe you. Come, bring that chair closer and sit. Now, where was I?”
“She scared everyone.”
“Ah, yes. The suore didn’t know what to make of her. A proud girl of sixteen from a noble family of Lucca. The novitiates dared not speak to her. Oh, but how they whispered behind her back! She was beautiful and wealthy and knew her place in the world. Yet there was a wildness within her. She was not afraid of anything and that is what frightened the others the most. She would speak her mind to anyone and she would not do anything she did not believe was right — no matter if the order came from God Himself.”
She looks to her window and says, “I shall never forget that day and the tree.”
“It was time for morning vespers and the novitiates were gathered in the chapel. All except one. The abbess, Suora Margherita, ordered one of the faithful to fetch the stray lamb. The day was as beautiful as it is today, so where do you think she was?”
“In her room?”
She shakes her head. “In the gardens, perhaps? Like you?”
How does she know that I find more solace in the warmth of the sun than in the cold chapel?
“How is it that you see everything, Mother?”
“Because I do not see with just my eyes, child. At best, the eyes are limited. They will play tricks on you and deceive you time and again. When you wish to see something as it truly is, close your eyes and wait for the truth to show itself. So, as it came to be, after much seeking, the girl sent on a fool’s errand took her own counsel and ventured into the garden. There, as plainly as you are sitting here with me, was the errant girl.
* * * * *
“What are you doing up there?” Called the girl from the ground, looking up at a braver girl sitting among the leaves and fruit in a pear tree.
“What are you doing down there?” She called back.
“I was bid to come fetch you. It is time for vespers. “
“No, thank you. I shall stay here.”
“The abbess is quite adamant that you should come.”
“I am quite adamant that I shall stay here.”
“What is it like up there?”
“Ask the birds, for they would do better to explain it to you.”
For some reason, the girl on the ground was not scared off by the other’s thorny quip, as all the other novitiates had already been.
“Do you mean to say that your brain rivals not that of a sparrow?”
The girl in the tree narrowed her eyes, and suddenly the other girl felt her knees tremble. Yet she stayed planted.
“Come see for yourself then. Or are you frightened?”
“What lies in a tree that cannot be found on earth?”
“Only the most important things. Invisible things.”
And so the moment appeared that would form the chasm between the life she was meant to have and the life she was born to live.
“Very well. I shall join you.”
* * * * *
“I should like to be that brave.” The words leave my lips as if they are being spoken by someone else. They are a whisper but she hears them and holds me in her steady gaze. Her smile is gone but something else is there that I had never seen before, yet I recognize immediately. Love. And another stranger regards me as well. Hope. A hope that, as I now know, was her hope that I would ask the question she had longed to answer.
“Did they remain friends?”
A faint smile returns and she takes my hand.
“Elisabetta, will you do something for me?”
She points to the table standing at the foot of her bed and bids me to lift the linen cloth that covers it. The cloth is heavier than I expect. For the first time I see that the flowers embroidered along its edge mirror the ones I pass every day in the abbey gardens. To my surprise the cloth hides not a table but a large wooden chest. On the top is a painting of a grand villa, and all around are carvings of acorns, plants, animals and angels. I have never before seen such beauty wrought by human hands.
“It is a cassone. Beautiful is it not? Here.”
She removes a chain that hangs around her neck. The same one each of us in the abbey wears, but hers carries a silver key next to the simple cross.
“One opens the soul. The other belongs to the heart.”
She hands me the key which is warm and heavy in my hand. I hold it tightly for a moment to be sure that I am not dreaming, and also perhaps to feel as if I can hold her heart close to mine. I put the key in the lock and struggle for a moment before I hear the latch give way.
“It has not been opened in a long while.”
I open the chest and see a lifetime of memories: scraps of parchment, a dried wreathe, a book of hours, and so much more. I have to hold myself from diving headlong into the chest to be lost for days.
“The book of hours, Elisabetta. See there? Open to the first page and read it to me.”
Written in a skilled and gentle hand, are these words:
“I begin this testament to record a life that is lost to me. It started the day we met. Caterina was in a pear tree and I knew that if I left the ground and joined her that I would be embarking on a friendship that scared me — and yet the thought of not seeing the world from this brave girl’s eyes scared me more. So I started to climb and soon stumbled. She reached out her hand to help me and from that moment we were friends. Hers was the hand I would reach for most in my life. And when it was there, I knew everything would be alright. How we were different! Caterina loved being at the center of everything and she could speak to anyone — noble and servant alike. How she longed to be of the world again, as she used to say. I was content to stay in the gardens and the apothecary with my plants and herbs. It was Caterina who taught me to love adventure and mischief — and it was with her alone that my soul ventured forth, beyond what I knew was safe and expected of me. To have a friend like that is to have a mirror that shows you what you could be, not just who you are.”
Her eyes are closed now, listening to the words wash over her memory.
I continue to read, “Together we tested the abbess’ very Christianity – surely her virtues of patience and forgiveness. I am quite confident that we would have been cast out had it not been for the abbess’ stubborn conviction that she could “wring the devil from our souls.” More than that, we owe our place to Aede, who acted as a salve on our behalf more times than I can count. If that was not enough, Caterina never failed to remind the abbess of the small fortune her family bestowed upon the abbey. Oh, how Caterina was brave. She could not hold her tongue no matter how I pleaded with her. And how she would pay for it.”7