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Shapeless black shadows stretched out on all sides; the hammering sound of rain laid a mantle of fog over the cot. In the heavy, deep darkness, a chorus of snores whistled softly before dying away, the stirring and breathing of sixty women and uncounted animals, uneven and flute-shrill against the monotonous rasping of water dripping on the roof overhead. For thirteen years, she had been awaiting this dawn, but she had not imagined the rain.
"Are you awake, sweeting?"
She drew a deep breath and rolled to the edge of the cot. Next to her, she felt the blanket lift for a moment and then Ceci's cool, naked body slipped in beside her. She curled her legs around the girl's and moved her hand caressingly over the supple waist. "It was raining the first day I came here."
"Nonsense," Ceci said placidly. Her voice was husky and nasal, as if she had a cold. Or had been weeping. "You were only a babe. You can't remember."
Heloise dragged the coverlet around their ears and hid her face in Ceci's thick black plaits. Her throat tensed. She thought, How can a person live in a place almost her whole life and yet never think of it as home? She had been well treated; there was no cause for complaint. "I don't want to argue with you," she said, her mouth next to Ceci's ear. "It was cold and wet the day Uncle brought me. My hair was soaked, and Lady Alais sat me by the fire in her parlor and fed me hot licorice wine."
Ceci sniffed. "I thought you said Agnes brought you here."
"Whoever." Each January, before Epiphany, Agnes would make her annual visit to Argenteuil. Her uncle's housekeeper was round and enormous, her face as bloated as an unbaked loaf of bread with two sunken raisins for eyes, her voice as deep as a man's. From under her voluminous cloak, she'd bring out the eagerly awaited bundles—oatcakes and gingerbread, currants and candied oranges, a small bag of deniers for Heloise's tuition, and always a new bliaut. Unfortunately, she never failed to deliver the same lecture: how lucky Heloise was to be a pupil at wealthy and fashionable Sainte-Marie of Argenteuil, where Charlemagne's daughter had once been prioress. Master said that its reputation for learning compared to the famous German convents of Gandersheim and Landesberg. Count your blessings, lamb, she'd pant in a stentorian tone.
And so forth. Heloise had heard the admonitions so often that she no longer bothered to listen. She would hold her breath until Agnes had raced off to the abbey church to gawk at la sainte tunique, the tunic woven for Christ by the Blessed Virgin. She hated relics. Disgusting old bones and ridiculous splinters of wood that the ignorant slobbered over. The tunic was somewhat better—at least it might possibly be authentic. Except that she doubted it.
The darkness had begun to scatter. Through a high window, far away, she could see a leaden square of sky. The rain had subsided to a thin hiss that she could barely hear. She was tired. Numb, too, although this she did not wish to admit. Last week, when Lady Alais had summoned her and announced that Uncle had sent word she should come to Paris, she had sprinted into the cloister and rolled on the grass. She had sobbed hysterically, as much from relief as happiness. Now, for the first time, she felt uneasy about leaving Argenteuil. Something occurred to her. She knew nothing of life in Paris. For that matter, what did she know of life anywhere, except behind these walls?
Abruptly, she jerked her arm from Ceci's waist and rolled to the far edge of the cot. She burrowed deeply into the safe blanket.
Ceci said, "Don't go today."
"I must. Lady Alais has arranged for me to ride pillion with a butcher who's traveling into town."
"Go tomorrow instead. One day won't matter."
Heloise thought of the ride and of Paris. Beyond the crenellated walls of the convent squatted the village. And beyond the village was —what? Plowed fields, vineyards, more villages. She shrugged irritably. "You would keep me here forever if I let you. You know I must leave today. Uncle will be expecting me."
Neither of them spoke. After a long while, Ceci said quietly, "I want to go home."
Heloise glanced at the pale face next to hers. "You will. Soon your father will send for you. Then you can go hack to Angers and marry your Rannulf or Geoffrey or whatever his name is."
"Girard. I don't know, maybe he's married someone else by now. I've had no letter from Father since Michaelmas." She sighed noisily. "Girard won't have me without a dower, and with four older sisters I—"
"Well, marriage isn't so important." Hearing Ceci's sharp gasp of indignation, she grinned. "God's toenails, how boring to be a woman!"
"You're in a pretty mood. What would you be then? A man?" Her voice was thick with sarcasm.
Heloise hoisted herself on one elbow. She turned to the girl and tugged at one of her plaits. "Listen to me, Ceci—"
"Do you ever think about the future?" She paused, searching for words that Ceci would understand. "I mean, do you ever wonder what your life will be like twenty years from now?"
"You sound like an astrologer."
The subject made Ceci uncomfortable. She bit her lip and turned unsmiling eyes on Heloise. "What's there to think about? When I go home, I'll marry Girard. Or someone. We'll sleep together and I'll have a son. The next year—"
Heloise closed her eyes and stirred impatiently.
"—the next year, I'll have another son and then maybe a daughter." Her voice rose to a triumphant bleat. "And in twenty years, I'll have a lot of grandchildren."
It was a bad subject to have brought up this morning. In a few hours, she would be gone. She would miss Ceci. She thought, I should tell her that and make her happy. Musing, she felt her eyes grow heavy, and she started to doze; in her sleep, she heard someone playing the lute, badly. A moment later, Sister Adela's greyhound jumped on the bed and began climbing over her chest, his wet tongue lashing her neck. Absentmindedly, she pushed him to the floor. Sister Adela's hound had a habit of making water on people's beds.
Ceci pushed down the bedclothes and sat up. She regarded Heloise with teasing black-rimmed eyes. "And where do you see yourself in twenty years, madame?"
"You wouldn't understand." The girl, two years younger than she, was still a child—Heloise was fourteen. "Yes, I would. You can tell me."
Heloise glanced around the dormitory in the wavery light. Even though the bell for prime had not yet rung, the mounds under the blankets were beginning to stir. There was a low torrent of coughs and catarrh, and she saw Sister Judith waddle toward the privy, her rump swinging loosely behind her. Solemn, expectant, Ceci leaned toward her. With her compact body and eyes as dark as berries, she sometimes reminded Heloise of a gypsy. She wondered how Ceci would manage at Argenteuil without her; for eight years she had followed Heloise like a worshipful puppy, imitating her and hanging on every word with little-sisterish adoration. "I won't be a bride. Neither of man nor of Christ."
The girl began to giggle. "You don't want to marry."
"That's right." Heloise smiled.
Ceci looked bewildered. "Then you must return here and take your vows. There is nothing else."
Heloise saw the subsacristan appear at the far end of the dormitory; bleary-eyed, she began to wag the little bell for prime. She crept down the aisle between the cots, keeping to the center lest someone trip her. No one looked at her. Ceci rolled out of bed and stared down at Heloise before leaving. A few minutes later, she returned carrying her clothing and shoes. Heloise had not moved. She stared up at the ceiling with expressionless eyes.
"Aren't you getting up?" Ceci asked nervously.
"No." All in a burst, the sun had risen and she could hear someone gurgling about the fine day. Suddenly, the room was full of women hurriedly pulling on black robes, unplaiting hair, arguing hoarsely. Always wrangling, forever wrangling. Ceci sat down on the edge of the bed and began tugging at her shoes. "Your uncle won't keep you at home forever," she said breathlessly.
"He might." No, he would not. Not for nothing had she listened to Agnes's doleful plaints the last dozen years. Fulbert was a money-hungry, pinchpenny miser. Which was why he was rich and owned farms and vineyards near Melun. But Heloise's mother had left her some money, how much she did not know exactly. She did know that the fees Fulbert paid Lady Alais for her education came out of her own money. She thought, Those few sous each year couldn't have exhausted my inheritance. There must be a great deal left. I must speak to Uncle about it. "I won't marry. I'll read Greek and become a great philosopher. Like Plato."
Ceci stopped combing her hair and gave a gleeful little cackle. "Oh. Well, yes. Prioress says you have a mind like a man." She shook her head violently. "But you're not a man, sweeting. So you must be a woman and marry a man."
"I'm not interested in men," Heloise said heavily. All Ceci thought of was men, she thought, suddenly angry for no good reason. But she was no different from any of the others at Argenteuil. Their chief topic of conversation, after their pets, was men. Bishop this—brother that. She put her hands to her face, rubbing her eyes and trying to shut out the lemon sunlight.
"You've never known any men," Ceci said loudly and pointedly. "Wait. Paris is full of them. Thousands of students from all over. They say there are more students than people in Paris. Mark me, you'll change your mind."
Heloise made a noncommittal grunt in her throat. She didn't dislike men, so that was not why she had no desire to marry. She didn't want to talk about it to Ceci. When she looked up, she met the eyes of Sister Judith standing over the cot.
"Why aren't you dressed?"
"Clean out your ears. The bell for prime rang fifteen minutes ago. Didn't you hear?"
Heloise made a face and pulled the blanket over her chin. I'm not coming."
"Are you mad? Lady Abbess will be furious."
The dormitory had emptied, save for a handful of nuns who had stayed up late after matins drinking and gossiping and who, naturally, could not manage to rouse themselves. Heloise crawled out of the cot and pretended they weren't there. She hurried to the lavatory to wash, and when she came back, she pulled a wooden clothes chest from under the bed. Inside, hidden among her tunics, was a white linen shift and a pale-blue bliaut, neady folded, and a coiled embroidered belt. This treasure, concealed for the past year, she had garnered from the maid of a rich lady who had stopped the night at Argenteuil. The maid had seemed surprised when Heloise begged for shabby clothing fit only for the fire. It was true: the shift had been badly ripped and the faded bliaut stained with grease spots and mud. But Heloise had mended and stitched, and she had scrubbed the stains with verjuice until the dress looked presentable. It had remained hidden in her coffer against the day when she might have occasion to wear such frivolous apparel.
She pulled the shift over her head and wriggled her arms into the long, tight sleeves of the dress, pulling it down sleekly over her breasts and hips. The belt she passed twice around her waist and knotted low on her hips. There was something wrong; she wished that she could see herself. The dress felt considerably more snug than when she had first acquired it. When she looked down, she saw that it barely covered her ankles. Last year it had fitted, but now she realized that she must have grown.
"God's death, why am I so tall?" she swore aloud. Already she towered by half a head over the tallest nun at Argenteuil. It was bad enough to be an orphan, but to be a tall orphan seemed a cruel and gratuitous insult on the part of fortune.
There was nothing she could do about the bliaut now. Quickly she unplaited her hair and let it stream down her back. From the chest she pulled her cloak and spread it flat on the cot. She began emptying the chest. In no time, everything she owned had been placed in a mound, and she tied the cloak into a bundle. Kneeling, she reached into a hole in the mattress and drew out a grimy silk purse. The contents she dumped on the bed, and began to sort the motley collection of bits and pieces into two piles. On one she threw a handful of shiny pebbles she had collected along the Seine, a cheap brooch, a length of yellowing lace, and a fistful of almonds. These she stuffed back into the purse and went over to slide it under Ceci's pillow. Into her bundle went the remaining items—an ivory comb missing several teeth, an orange and black butterfly mounted on a scrap of parchment, two needles and a thimble, and a vial of rose water she had concocted herself last summer. And, most precious of all, her writing implements: knife for scraping parchment, quill pen, biting pumice, and ruler.
She left the parcel on her cot and headed toward the night stairs leading to the south transept of the church. A voice from one of the cots behind her shouted, "Wait till Lady Alais gets a look at you in that thing!"
Heloise did not turn around.
"Slut!" The voice rose to an angry wheeze.
The stairwell was dank and chilly. Under the fitted sleeves of the gown, she felt gooseflesh rise on her arms. Suddenly her stomach wrenched violently and she felt like vomiting. Halfway down, she stopped and leaned against the damp stone wall. How many hundreds of nights had she crept, dazed and soft with sleep, down these dark steps to say matins and lauds, how many hundreds of dawns for prime? As a young child, she had not been required, or even permitted, to get up for the night office at two a.m. But of course the forbidden always lures, and she had begged the nuns to take her along as a treat. By now it must have been eight or nine years since she had slept the night through, and she could hardly imagine a night of unbroken rest.
She went on down the steps. In the cool, dark shadows near the choir, she pressed against a pillar and watched the nuns gabble their way through a psalm. This morning they were skipping sentences to get the service over quickly. One side of the choir had omitted a pause between verses and were already mumbling their way into the next verse before the other side had finished the first.
Still, they were behaving better than last year at Pentecost, when they had giggled and joked during services and dropped hot candle wax from the upper stalls on the heads of those below. After that, the bishop had severely chastized Lady Alais for negligence and commanded that she restore discipline among her women. Heloise wrapped her arms around her chest and shivered. She thought of taking her place in the choir one last time but decided not to. She could think of nothing but Paris. Besides, there was the matter of her dress. She edged her way along the wall to a side door and opened it carefully. As she turned to close the door behind her, she caught a glimpse of a bilious-looking Sister Judith, eyes closed, mouth hanging open in a silent snore. Heloise choked off a laugh. She thought, Most of these women wouldn't be here if the choice had been theirs. Obviously.
The cloister was deserted. Along the east walk she broke into a run, passing the bakehouse and kitchens, and let herself out through the postern door which led to the vegetable gardens. The brightness of the air made her blink; she didn't remember May to be this hot. Before her swept the farm and pastureland belonging to Argenteuil. Robin, the oxherd, was veering his bulls toward the west pasture; over by the pens, the dairymaid screamed at her heifers and calves. The air smelled faintly of rosemary, rankly of manure.
Argenteuil lay on the north bank of the Seine, and the path down the hill to the river took her by the convent's fishponds and then through tall, lush grass and a grove of willow trees. Under the arching branches, the noises of the farmyard faded; the air was colder and the grass wet and glistening from last night's rain. With a rush of joy, she ran along the muddy path, hair blowing behind her.
Excerpted from Stealing Heaven by Marion Meade. Copyright © 1979 Marion Meade. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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