Fool Chapter 6




Life is loneliness, broken only by the gods taunting us with friendship and the odd bonk. I admit it, I grieved. Perhaps I am a fool to have expected Cordelia to stay. (Well, yes, I am a fool - don't be overly clever, eh? It's annoying.) But for most of my manly years she had been the lash on my back, the bait to my loins, and the balm of my imagination - my torment, my tonic, my fever, my curse. I ache for her.

There is no comfort in the castle. Drool gone, Taster gone, Lear gone mad. At best, Drool was little more company than Jones, and decidedly less portable, but I worry for him, great child that he is, stumbling about in the circle of so many villains and so much sharp metal. I miss his gape-toothed smile, filled as it was with forgiveness, acceptance, and often, cheddar. And Taster, what did I know of him, really? Just a wan lad from Hog Nostril on Thames. Yet when I needed a sympathetic ear, he provided, even if he was oft distracted from my woes by his own selfish dietary concerns.

I lay on my bed in the portislodge staring out the cruciform arrow loops at the grey bones of London, stewing in my misery, yearning for my friends.

For my first friend.

For Thalia.

The anchoress.

On a chill autumn day at Dog Snogging, the third time I was allowed to bring food to the anchoress, we became fast friends. I was still in awe of her, and merely being in her presence made me feel base, unworthy, and profane, but in a good way. I passed the plate of rough brown bread and cheese through the cross in the wall with prayers and a plea for her forgiveness.

"This fare will do, Pocket. It will do. I'll forgive you for a song."

"You must be a most pious lady and have great love for the Lord."

"The Lord is a tosser."

"I thought the Lord was a shepherd?"

"Well, that, too. But a bloke needs hobbies. Do you know 'Greensleeves'?"

"I know 'Dona Nobis Pacem.'"

"Do you know any pirate songs?"

"I could sing 'Dona Nobis Pacem' like a pirate."

"It means give us peace, in Latin, doesn't it?"

"Aye, mistress."

"Bit of a stretch then, innit, a pirate singing give us bloody peace?"

"I suppose. I could sing you a psalm, then, mistress."

"All right, then, Pocket, a psalm it is - one with pirates and loads of bloodshed, if you have it."

I was nervous, desperate for approval from the anchoress, and afraid that if I displeased her I might be struck down by an avenging angel, as seemed to happen often in scripture. Try as I might, I could not recall any piraty psalms. I cleared my throat and sang the only psalm I knew in English:

"The Lord is my tosser, I shall not want - "

"Wait, wait, wait," said the anchoress. "Doesn't it go, 'the Lord is my shepherd'?"

"Well, yes, mistress, but you said - "

And she started to laugh. It was the first time I heard her truly laugh and it felt as if I was getting approval from the Virgin herself. In the dark chamber, just the single candle on my side of the cross, it seemed like her laughter was all around me, embracing me.

"Oh, Pocket, you are a love. Thick as a bloody brick, but such a love."

I could feel the blood rise in my face. I was proud and embarrassed and ecstatic all at once. I didn't know what to do, so I fell to my knees and prostrated myself before the arrow loop, pushing my cheek against the stone floor. "I'm sorry, mistress."

She laughed some more. "Arise, Sir Pocket of Dog Snogging."

I climbed to my feet and stared into the dark cross-shaped hole in the wall, and there I saw that dull star that was her eye reflecting the candle flame and I realized that there were tears in my own eyes.

"Why did you call me that?"

"Because you make me laugh and you are deserving and valiant. I think we're going to be very good friends."

I started to ask her what she meant, but the iron latch clanked and the door into the passageway swung slowly open. Mother Basil was there, holding a candelabra, looking displeased.

"Pocket, what's going on here?" said the mother superior in her gruff baritone.

"Nothing, Reverend Mother. I've just given food to the anchoress."

Mother Basil seemed reluctant to enter the passageway, as if she was afraid to be in view of the arrow loop that looked into the anchoress's chamber.

"Come along, Pocket. It's time for evening prayers."

I bowed quickly to the anchoress and hurried out the door under Mother Basil's arm.

As the sister closed the door, the anchoress called, "Reverend Mother, a moment, please."

Mother Basil's eyes went wide and she looked as if she'd been called out by the devil. "Go on to vespers, Pocket. I'll be along."

She made her way into the dead-end passageway and closed the door behind her even as the bell calling us to vespers began to toll.

I wondered what the anchoress would discuss with Mother Basil, perhaps some conclusion she had realized during her hours of prayer, perhaps I had been found wanting and she would ask that I not be sent to her again. After just making my first friend, I was sorely afraid of losing her. While I repeated the prayers in Latin after the priest, in my heart I prayed to God to not take my anchoress away, and when mass ended, I stayed in the chapel and prayed until well after the midnight prayers.

Mother Basil found me in the chapel.

"There are going to be some changes, Pocket."

I felt my spirit drop into my shoe soles.

"Forgive me, Reverend Mother, for I know not what I do."

"What are you on about, Pocket? I'm not scolding you. I'm adding duties to your devotion."

"Oh," said I.

"From now on, you are to take food and drink to the anchoress in the hour before vespers, and there in the outer chamber, shall you sit until she has eaten, but upon the bell for vespers you are to leave there, and not return until the next day. No longer than an hour shall you stay, do you understand?"

"Yes, mum, but why only the hour?"

"More than that and you will interfere with the anchoress's own communion with God. Further, you are never to ask her about where she was before this, about her family, or her past in any way. If she should speak of these things you are to immediately put your fingers in your ears, and verily sing 'la, la, la, la, I can't hear you, I can't hear you,' and leave the chamber immediately."

"I can't do that, mum."

"Why not?"

"I can't work the latch to the outer door with my fingers in my ears."

"Ah, sweet Pocket, I do so love your wit. I think you shall sleep on the stone floor this night, the rug shields you from the blessed cooling of your fevered imagination, which God finds an abomination. Yes, a light beating and the bare stone for you and your wit tonight."

"Yes, mum."

"And so, you must never speak with the anchoress about her past, and if you should, you shall be excommunicated and damned for all eternity with no hope for redemption, the light of the Lord shall never fall upon you, and you shall live in darkness and pain for ever and ever. And in addition, I shall have Sister Bambi feed you to the cat."

"Yes, mum," said I. I was so thrilled I nearly peed. I would be blessed by the glory of the anchoress every single day.

"Well that's a scaly spot o' snake wank," said the anchoress.

"No, mum, it's a cracking big cat."

"Not the cat, the hour a day. Only an hour a day?"

"Mother Basil doesn't want me to disturb your communion with God, Madame Anchoress." I bowed before the dark arrow loop.

"Call me Thalia."

"I daren't, mum. And neither may I ask you about your past or from whence you come. Mother Basil has forbidden it."

"She's right on that, but you may call me Thalia, as we are friends."

"Aye, mum. Thalia."

"And you may tell me of your past, good Pocket. Tell me of your life."

"But, Dog Snogging is all I know - all I have ever known."

I could hear her laughing in the dark. "Then, tell me a story from your lessons, Pocket."

So I told the anchoress of the stoning of St. Stephen, of the persecution of St. Sebastian, and the beheading of St. Valentine, and she, in turn, told me stories of the saints I had never heard of in catechism.

"And so," said Thalia, "that is the story of how St. Rufus of Pipe-wrench was licked to death by marmots."

"That sounds a most horrible martyring," said I.

"Aye," said the anchoress, "for marmot spit is the most noxious of all substances, and that is why St. Rufus is the patron of saliva and halitosis unto this day. Enough martyring, tell me of some miracles."

And so I did. I told of the magic, self-filling milk pail of St. Bridgid of Kildare, of how St. Fillan, after his ox was killed by a wolf, was able to compel the same wolf to pull a cart full of materials for building a church, and how St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.

"Aye," said Thalia, "and snakes have been grateful ever since. But let me apprise you of the most wondrous miracle of how St. Cinnamon drove the Mazdas out of Swinden."

"I've never heard of St. Cinnamon," said I.

"Well, that is because these nuns at Dog Snogging are base and not worthy to know such things, and why you must never share what you learn here with them lest they become overwhelmed and succumb to an ague."

"An ague of over-piety?"

"Aye, lad, and you will be the one to have killed them."

"Oh, I would never want to do that."

"Of course you wouldn't. Did you know, in Portugal they canonize a saint by actually shooting him out of a cannon?"

And so it went, day in, day out, week in, week out, trading secrets and lies with Thalia. You might think that it was cruel of her to spend her only time in contact with the outside world telling lies to a little boy, but then, the first story that Mother Basil had told me was about a talking snake who gave tainted fruit to naked people, and the bishop had made her an abbess. All along what Thalia was teaching me was how to entertain her. How to share a moment in story and laughter - how you could become close to someone, even when separated from them by a stone wall.

Once a month for the first two years the bishop came from York to check on the anchoress, and she would seem to lose her spirit for a day, as if he were skimming it off and taking it away, but soon she would recover and our routine of chat and laughter would go on. After a few years the bishop stopped coming, and I was afraid to ask Mother Basil why, lest it be a reminder and the dour prelate resume his spirit-sucking sojourns.

The longer the anchoress was in her chamber, the more she delighted in my conveying the most mundane details from the outside.

"Tell me of the weather today, Pocket. Tell me of the sky, and don't skip a single cloud."

"Well, the sky looked like someone was catapulting giant sheep into the frosty eye of God."

"Fucking winter. Crows against the sky?"

"Aye, Thalia, like a vandal with quill and ink set loose to randomly punctuate the very dome of day."

"Ah, well spoken, love, completely incoherent imagery."

"Thank you, mistress."

While about my chores and studies I tried to take note of every detail and construct metaphors in my head so I might paint word pictures for my anchoress, who depended on me to be her light and color.

My days seemed to begin at four when I came to Thalia's chamber, and end at five, when the bell rang for vespers. Everything before was in preparation for that hour, and everything after, until sleep, was in sweet remembrance.

The anchoress taught me how to sing - not just the hymns and chants I had been singing from the time I was little, but the romantic songs of the troubadours. With simple, patient instruction, she taught me how to dance, juggle, and perform acrobatics, and all by verbal description - not once in those years had I laid eyes on the anchoress, or seen more than her partial profile at the arrow loop.

I grew older and fuzz sprouted on my cheek - my voice broke, making me sound as if a small goose was trapped in my gullet, honking for her supper. The nuns at Dog Snogging started to take notice of me as something other than their pet, for many were sent to the abbey when they were no older than I. They would flirt and ask me for a song, a poem, a story, the more bawdy the better, and the anchoress had taught me many of those. Where she had learned them, she would never say.

"Were you an entertainer before you became a nun?"

"No, Pocket. And I am not a nun."

"But, perhaps your father - "

"No, my father was not a nun either."

"I mean, was he an entertainer?"

"Sweet Pocket, you mustn't ask about my life before I came here. What I am now, I have always been, and everything I am is here with you."

"Sweet Thalia," said I. "That is a fiery flagon of dragon toss."

"Isn't it, though?"

"You're grinning, aren't you?"

She held the candle close to the arrow loop, illuminating her wry smile. I laughed, and reached through the cross to touch her cheek. She sighed, took my hand and pressed it hard against her lips, then, in an instant, she had pushed my hand away and moved out of the light.

"Don't hide," said I. "Please don't hide."

"Fat lot of choice I have about whether I hide or not. I live in a bloody tomb."

I didn't know what to say. Never before had she complained about her choice to become the anchoress of Dog Snogging, even if other expressions of her faith seemed - well - abstract.

"I mean don't hide from me. Let me see you."

"You want to see? You want to see?"

I nodded.

"Give me your candles."

She had me hand four lit candles through the arrow loop. Whenever I performed for her she had me set them in holders around the outer chamber so she could see me dance, or juggle, or do acrobatics, but never had she asked for more than one candle in her own chamber. She placed the candles around her chamber and for the first time I could see the stone pallet where she slept on a mattress of straw, her meager possessions laid out on a heavy table, and Thalia, standing there in a tattered linen frock.

"Look," she said. She pulled her frock over her head and dropped it on the floor.

She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She looked younger than I had imagined, thin, but womanly - her face was that of a mischievous Madonna, as if carved by a sculptor inspired more by desire than the divine. Her hair was long and the color of buckskin, catching the candlelight as if a single ray of sunlight might make it explode in golden fire. I felt a heat rise in my face, and another kind of rise in my trousers. I was excited and confused and ashamed all at once, and I turned my back on the arrow loop and cried out.


Suddenly, she was right behind me, and I felt her hand on my shoulder, then rubbing my neck.

"Pocket. Sweet Pocket, don't. It's all right."

"I feel like the Devil and the Virgin are doing battle in my body. I didn't know you were like that."

"Like a woman, you mean?"

Her hand was warm and steady, kneading the muscles in my shoulder through the cross in the wall and I leaned into it. I wanted to turn and look, I wanted to run out of the chamber, I wanted to be asleep, or just waking - ashamed that the Devil had visited me in the night with a damp dream of temptation.

"You know me, Pocket. I'm your friend."

"But you are the anchoress."

"I'm Thalia, your friend, who loves you. Turn around, Pocket."

And I did.

"Give me your hand," said she.

And I did.

She put it on her body, and she put her hands on mine, and pressed against the cold stone. Through the cross in the wall, I discovered a new universe - of Thalia's body, of my body, of love, of passion, of escape - and it was a damn sight better than bloody chants and juggling. When the bell rang for vespers we fell away from the cross, spent and gasping, and we began to laugh. Oh, and I had chipped a tooth.

"One for the Devil, then, love?" said Thalia.

When I arrived with the anchoress's supper the next afternoon she was waiting with her face pressed nearly through the center of the arrow cross - she looked like one of the angel-faced gargoyles that flanked the main doors of Dog Snogging, except they always seemed to be weeping and she was grinning. "So, didn't go to confession today, did you?"

I shuddered. "No, mum, I worked in the scriptorium most of the day."

"Pocket, I think I would prefer you not call me mum, if it's not too much to ask. Given the new level of our friendship it seems - oh, I don't know - unsavory."

"Yes, m - uh - mistress."

"Mistress I can work with. Now, pass me my supper and see if you can fit your face in the opening the way that I have."

Thalia's cheekbones were wedged in the arrow loop, which was little wider than my hand.

"Doesn't that hurt?" I'd been finding abrasions on my arms and various bits all day from our adventure the night before.

"It's not the flaying of St. Bart, but, yes, it stings a bit. You can't confess what we did, or what we do, love? You know that, right?"

"Then am I going to have to go to hell?"

"Well - " She pulled back, rolled her eyes as if searching the ceiling for an answer. " - not alone. Give us our supper, lad, and get your face in the loop, I have something to teach you."

And so it went for weeks and months. I went from being a mediocre acrobat to a talented contortionist, and Thalia seemed to regain some of the life that I had thought sure she'd lost. She was not holy in the sense that the priests and nuns taught, but she was full of spirit and a different kind of reverence. More concerned with this life, this moment, than an eternity beyond the reach of the cross in the wall. I adored her, and I wanted her to be out of the chamber, in the world, with me, and I began to plan her escape. But I was but a boy, and she was bloody barking, so it was not meant to be.

"I've stolen a chisel from a mason who passed by on his way to work on the minster at York. It will take some time, but if you work on a single stone, you might escape in summer."

"You are my escape, Pocket. The only escape I can ever allow myself."

"But we could run off, be together."

"That would be smashing, except I can't leave. So, hop up and get your tackle in the cross. Thalia's a special treat for you."

I never seemed to make my point once my tackle went in the cross. Distracted, I was. But I learned, and while I was forbidden confession - and to tell the truth, I didn't feel that badly about it - I began to share what I had learned.

"Thalia, I must confess to you, I have told Sister Nikki about the little man in the boat."

"Really? Told her or showed her?"

"Well, showed her, I reckon. But she seems a bit thick. She kept making me show her over and over - asked me to meet her in the cloisters to show her again after vespers tonight."

"Ah, the joy of being slow. Still, it's a sin to be selfish with one's knowledge."

"That's what I thought," said I, relieved.

"And speaking of the little man in the boat, I believe there is one on this side of the loop who has been naughty and requires a thorough tongue-lashing."

"Aye, mistress," said I, wedging my cheeks into the arrow loop. "Present the rascal for punishment."

And so it went. I was the only person I knew who had calluses on his cheekbones, but I had also developed the arms and grip of a blacksmith from suspending myself with my fingertips wedged between the great stones to extend my bits through the arrow loop. And thus I hung, spread spiderlike across the wall, my business being tended to, frantic and friendly, by the anchoress, when the bishop entered the antechamber.

(The bishop entered the antechamber? The bishop entered the antechamber? At this point you're going coy on us, euphemizing about parts and positions when you've already confessed to mutual violation with a holy woman through a bloody arrow slot? Well, no.)

The actual sodding Bishop of Bloody York entered the sodding antechamber with Mother sodding Basil, who bore a brace of sodding storm lanterns.

And so I let go. Unfortunately, Thalia did not. It appeared that her grip, too, had been strengthened by our encounters on the wall.

"What the hell are you doing, Pocket?" said the anchoress.

"What are you doing?" asked Mother Basil.

I hung there, more or less suspended to the wall by three points, one of them not covered by shoes. "Ahhhhhhhhh!" said I. I was finding it somewhat difficult to think.

"Give us a little slack, lad," said Thalia. "This is meant to be more of a dance, not a tug-of-war."

"The bishop is out here," said I.

She laughed. "Well, tell him to get in the queue and I'll tend to him when we're finished."

"No, Thalia, he's really out here."

"Oh toss," said she, releasing my knob.

I fell to the floor and quickly rolled onto my stomach.

Thalia's face was at the arrow loop. "Evening, your grace." A big grin there. "Fancy a spot of stony bonking before vespers?"

The bishop turned so quickly his miter went half-past on his head. "Hang him," he said. He snatched one of Mother Basil's lanterns and walked out of the chamber.

"Bloody brown bread you serve tastes like goat scrotum!" Thalia called after. "A lady deserves finer fare!"

"Thalia, please," I said.

"Not a comment on you, Pocket. Your serving style is lovely, but the bread is rubbish." Then to Mother Basil. "Don't blame the boy, Reverend Mother, he's a love."

Mother Basil grabbed me by the ear and dragged me out of the chamber.

"You're a love, Pocket," said the anchoress.

Mother Basil locked me in a closet in her chambers, then mid-way through the night, opened the door and handed in a crust of bread and a chamber pot. "Stay here until the bishop is on his way in the morning, and if anyone asks, you've been hung."

"Yes, Reverend Mother," said I.

She came to get me the next morning and hustled me out through the chapel. I'd never seen her so distraught. "You've been like a son to me, Pocket," she said, fussing about me, strapping a satchel and other bits of kit on me. "So it's going to pain me to send you off."

"But, Reverend Mother - "

"Hush, lad. We'll take you to the barn, hang you in front of a few farmers, then you're off to the south to meet up with a group of mummers[21] who will take you in."

"Beggin' pardon, mum, but if I'm hung, what will mummers do with me, a puppet show?"

"I'll not really hang you, just make it look good. We have to, lad, the bishop ordered it."

"Since when does the bishop order nuns to hang people?"

"Since you shagged the anchoress, Pocket."

At the mention of her I broke away from Mother Basil, ran through the abbey, down the old corridor and into the antechamber. The arrow cross was gone, completely bricked up and mortared in. "Thalia! Thalia!" I called. I screamed and beat the stones until my fists bled, but not a sound came from the other side of the wall. Ever.

The sisters pulled me away, tied my hands, and took me to the barn where I was hanged.

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