The girl crouches in a field, oblivious to the pigs that rootle at the trough behind her. Not yet five, she has forgotten she is tethered, a rope at her waist tied to the gate to curb her daydream wanderings. She pays no attention to the man who turns off the road and pauses for a moment to stare at her before he spurs his horse towards the dwelling beyond the trees.
She is intent upon the world she builds from carefully placed mud, forming mountain ranges like those she sees to the north, and a river, given life by murky water she has carried from the pigs’ barrel in her cupped hands. Trip after trip she has made, imagining herself God as he formed the Earth, and now she is satisfied with the water’s level she starts to shape crude huts along the river’s banks, mixing in straw to re-create the texture of the walls that enfold her at night.
She does not belong here; she knows this much of who she is, but nothing more. This uncertainty chafes at her daily, despite the care meted out by the woman who has fostered her. The woman has eight offspring of her own, who vie for her attention by taunting and jostling this cuckoo’s child at every turn. The world Heloise builds with such ferocious concentration will have no place for them. It is a world where voices rise only in merriment and hands pass food, not steal it from her plate behind the woman’s back; a world more like the Heaven described by Father Onfroi, the black-robed priest who visits monthly to collect their tithe and instruct them in God’s laws. He reads them stories from the Holy Book; she memorises them to tell the pigs, the only ones patient enough to listen to her imagination’s constant outpourings.
The thunder of an argument erupts from the trees. She drops her smoothing stick and backs into the milling herd. They nuzzle her, bristles tickling, sniffing the tight-strung rope, and she strains to reach for the runt, her favourite. The storm grows louder and the man now charges down the path, chickens flying. Her foster mother chases at his heels.
‘This is not as it appears …’ The woman flushes scarlet as he throws the brushwood gate open and makes straight for the cowering girl, pigs scattering and squealing. He snatches her from their midst. ‘I take great pains to care for her. This is for her own safety. She gets an idea in her head and wanders off …’
‘You call this care? Look at the state of her! She is filthy.’ The girl struggles against him, but his big hands make short work of freeing the knot around her waist. She has failed to loosen it despite prolonged attack. ‘Have no fear, child,’ he says. ‘I have come to take you from this place.’
‘If you had sent me warning—’
‘What? And give you time to hide her?’
‘But her family have paid—’
‘Family?’ He spits, the gob landing by her foster mother’s dirt-blacked feet. ‘You speak to me of family? This is my sister’s child, and those who cast her out will rot in Hell.
He lugs the terrified child across the field, turning his boots on the pigs who cluster by the open gate; a fleeting smile on his lips when they take off at speed towards the trees, snouts low, tails wagging.
Sensing his grit, the girl gives up her struggle, a dead weight in his arms now as he strides back towards his horse. They are chased by the woman’s wailing and demands for proof, and the girl feels the man growl deep in his chest. He lowers her to the ground beside a dappled mare and squats to meet her eye, ignoring the leery children who jostle in the cottage’s dim entrance.
‘I am your uncle, Heloise. My name is Fulbert. I have long been seeking you. Forgive me for the wait; I have travelled one end of the country to the other just to find you.’
She remains silent, quaking, struck by the diabolic sheen of his flaming hair and beard, far redder than her own unruly brown locks. He thrusts her up onto the mare and hauls himself behind, hugging her close with one hand while the other works the rein. The horse bolts straight into a canter. She screws her eyes shut to block the rush of ground below, tears leaking as she lets loose the scream that balls inside. Who is this man to snatch her from the only home she has? She churns over the scene again; how he shouted at her foster mother, made her cry. Yet he claimed Heloise; sought her out; made clear she matters. Is this not the miraculous deliverance she prays for every time the others goad and tease? She relaxes against him just a little and prays he is truly a good man — a concept she knows from the Holy Book but has yet to see much practised in the men around her.
After a time, the horse’s steady gait lulls her into sleep. She wakes to find them stopped beside a river, and she is sliding with him as he dismounts the mare.
‘Before we reach lodgings you must wash.’
Fear tightens its hold again as she eyes the current. She wants to tell him she cannot swim; that many times she has been pushed head-down into the water trough by the older children until she chokes. But she says nothing; she has learned it is better to be cursed as stupid than mocked for letting her thoughts reach air.
He seems to read her hesitation. ‘We will stay in the shallows and I will be beside you at all times.’ He winks. ‘I, too, am no fish!’
It is such an unexpected thing to say that she almost smiles. She allows him to lead her to the water’s edge, and there he strips down to his linen drawers, his skin paler than any she has seen; so very clean. One slow step by one slow step, they edge into the river’s flow. When it reaches her knees she feels its tug and tightens her grip on his arm.
‘This is deep enough. Tell me if I hurt you and I will stop at once.’
He peels away the ragged shift that clothes her, groaning when he sees her weeping sores. She watches the fabric billow for a moment before it is carried off by the current. Fulbert scrubs her with his nails one patch at a time, releasing the layers of dirt, and though it causes pain she utters nothing. She is transfixed by the tears that flow down his cheeks to burrow in his beard. She plucks one and puts it to her lips.
‘Salt,’ she says, surprised. When he startles, she looks back into the water’s flow. The shift is gone.
He touches his cheek and nods. ‘Yes, is that not strange? Some say an ocean lives within us; that we can hear its surf inside our heads.’
‘Ocean?’ It is a word she has heard but cannot picture; one of the many she collects and turns over in her mind to bring about some calm — and ease the boredom.
‘It is a vast body of briny water, Heloise. I have seen it once, and it is very fierce … but also wondrous. One day I will take you to see for yourself.’
Briny. Another good word. ‘I am to stay with you?’
‘Yes — and no.’ He watches her, his eyes the green of forest lichen.
She is afraid to react; scared to hand him something on which to peg an angry outburst.
‘I am not yet able to take you in myself,’ he says. ‘Your sire has done his best to hamper me, forever curse him. But we will prove him wrong, you and I, Heloise. One day he will regret he stole your birthright — and when he does, it will be we who shun him and the world will know him for the murderer he is.’
‘Murderer?’ This word she knows. She takes a step away, observing the flush that mottles his neck.
‘Forgive me, this is no talk for you.’ He closes his eyes for just a moment, and she thinks perhaps he prays. ‘You will be safe now, Heloise; that is all you need to know. I pledge always to keep you so.’ He leans in and places a kiss on her cheek. His lips are dry and cracked, his beard prickly.
It is the first kiss she can recall from anyone, unsure of its intention although it does not feel like a threat. ‘Where do I go, then?’
He picks crusted pus from a flea-bite on her thigh. ‘To the nuns at Argenteuil. They have the very best of reputations and can protect you there. And it is only a half-day’s ride from my lodgings in Paris.’
His tending stings, yet no one has ever before touched her with such care. ‘What do you do there?’
He chuckles and she likes the sound: it turns against himself instead of her. ‘I work to make myself useful.’ He scrapes away another caked scab. ‘A troublesome wife paid off, a position bought or sold, people vanished, secrets held — or whispered in another’s ear … One day I may well take up the role of canon, but until now I have needed my freedom to search for you — and I am as yet reluctant to give such freedoms up.’
Much of this baffles her. ‘People vanished? What does that mean?’
‘Ah, that, little Heloise, is a conversation too complicated for ears so young. Instead, know this: your mother was called Hersende. She was younger than me by many years, so beautiful and wise none could match her. I like to think that if she had lived you would be with her still, though Heaven only knows how. Those who claim that life is fair are either deranged or hold the keys to power.’
‘She is dead?’ He steals her from the woman then tells her this?
‘Dear Lord, you did not know?’
‘She shakes her head. He looks so sad for her, yet she is relieved. Better this than alive and refusing to claim her, as the other children constantly allege.
‘And my father?’
‘You will never hear his name pass my lips, God damn him,’ Fulbert says, these words as harsh in their tone as those of the man who shares her foster mother’s bed. ‘Forget him. He deserves no thought.’
Instead, he tells her of Argenteuil, a royal abbey that has stood beside the mighty river Seine for almost five hundred years. He says its reputation shines as bright as Gandersheim once did, a jewel in the Benedictine crown. Heloise does not understand, but mouths the words to add to her collection. She learns that nuns are wed to Christ and spend their lives in silent contemplation; that she will be safe and none will dare to raise a hand to her, he will make sure of it. She has never before been spoken to in this way; this alone is enough to shake off a little of her unease.
The sun is sinking by the time he has worked clean every patch of skin. At last he leads her to land and dries her with his cloak, sliding his own silk undershirt over her head and rolling up the sleeves to free her hands. He combs through her hair with his fingers, untangling the snares before he braids it in one wet eel down her back.
That night they stay above a roadside tavern, where they eat dry slabs of roasted boar and dark rye bread. Their room barely fits the two straw mattresses that reach wall to wall. He tucks her beneath a musty quilt of skins, but she cannot sleep. She feels too exposed without the other children top-and-tailed around her.
She is still round-eyed long after Fulbert has drunk two jugs of ale; she hears him lie down and his voice comes through the dark.
‘Go to sleep, Heloise. We have a long ride to Argenteuil.’
‘I am used to sharing with others.’ Eight of them, in fact: four one way and four the other, her place never certain but often on the outer edge.
He sighs. ‘Come then.’ He folds his covers back for her.
She skitters across to lie beside him. He pulls away whenever they touch, and she listens for an age before his breath slows and sleep takes him. Only now can she settle; she nests into the curve of his back as the scent of the river rises off him. She whispers the name he has gifted her: Hersende. At least it proves her mother is real.
They ride for another three days, their pace slowing to cross a mountain range that drops them into a wide river plain heading north. He tells her stories of the places they pass: a town once razed by fire, another that boasts a piece of Christ’s true cross, history, snippets of rumour, folklore. They play at spotting birds and try to imitate their calls. She feels alive, as if she were not born until this kind man came. She laughs. She questions without fear of mockery. She snuggles into the safe circle of his arms, no longer alarmed when the horse is given rein; instead it is exhilarating, as if she flies, and at night she sleeps beside him, the steady rise and fall of his chest reassuring when she wakes in the dark.
On their fourth day, Fulbert stops at a market in a bustling riverside town and buys a pale green linen smock, two sets of underclothing and a pair of calf-skin shoes. She feels at once grown-up but also constrained, less able to connect with the earth.
The afternoon fades as they lead the horse between long rows of bloated grapes, their fruity sweetness hanging dense in the air, to emerge near the ponds and tall stone manor houses that share the fields around the abbey of Argenteuil. Every step now brings the imposing outer walls closer, and Heloise reaches for Fulbert’s hand. She already grieves for their coming separation.
At the abbey’s main gates he speaks with the porteress to make their presence known. Heloise stares up past the towering walls of square-cut stone to watch the mossy roof glow yolk-orange in one last finger of light. On the lintel above the doors kneels a sculpted man, a picture of compassion as he bathes others’ feet. She turns from it to study Fulbert’s face.
‘Is that you?’
He laughs from his belly. ‘Heavens, girl, no. He is the Christ; Father to us all. He tends his flock and gathers lambs to cherish at his breast.’ He runs a warm hand across her crown. ‘So will it be for you.’
As he speaks, from the chapel’s open door swells the sound of many voices lifting in a surging chant. Ac mecum, Domine, signum in bonum … It is a moment of rapture, a warmth that sweeps right through her.
‘What do they say?’
‘Make for me, O Lord, a sign for good …’ The two of them stand in the fading light while he translates the Introit and Gradual of their liturgy, stopping as they begin the Tract. ‘Enough! My Latin is not what it was.’
‘Will I learn this here?’ Her eyes are two hopeful stars.
‘Of that you can be sure,’ he says, a smile at his lips. ‘Although I think they may wait a little for you to grow.’
‘No, please. Tell them to teach me now. I have a — a —’ she searches for the word, one she has heard Father Onfroi use, impressed by its strange quality, ‘a ravenous need to know.’
‘Do you indeed?’ He shakes his head, his smile tempered by sadness. ‘Dear Lord, you are so like Hersende it is unnerving.’
At length they are offered bread, cheese and water, and afterwards are taken to meet the Reverend Mother, the Lady Alberea; together she and Fulbert negotiate the terms under which Heloise can stay. He drops unfamiliar names that fly above Heloise’s head, though she can see it works to soften the woman’s attitude towards her. She will be the youngest by a good six years, but no concessions are to be made, except she will be relieved of the need to rise for midnight prayers. She must learn how to live within the confines of St Benedict’s Rule despite her youth.
‘And these things you must do no matter what, child: be unhesitating in your obedience and show the utmost of humility, speak only when asked and practise complete silence after Compline, and make sure you pray with heart-felt compunction — the Lord will know … Oh, and never interrupt the readings as we take our meals.’
Heloise nods, repeating the crucial words in her head so she can seek explanation when they are dismissed. Unhesitating, humility, Compline, compunction …
‘Also,’ the Lady Alberea says, ‘we have a rule of no possessions and strict avoidance of the outer world.’
At this, Heloise’s small hand snakes into Fulbert’s leathery palm. He squeezes it.
‘With that, Reverend Mother, I must take issue,’ he says. ‘I bring her here for safety and education — and therefore insist she be allowed the gift of books and freedom to study them, and to accompany me on outings when I come.’ He pauses, leaning forward to add, ‘I will, of course, be generous in my support and ensure all her costs are met. And I must insist all dealings around her care are to come straight to me and no one else.’
The Reverend Mother, rubbing peaked fingers along the notch in her chin, eyes him. He holds her gaze. ‘Very well. But make sure she understands this is a place of worship, of service, and while some rules can be bent, others must not be broken or she will be required to leave.’ She turns to Heloise. ‘Do you understand this, child?’
Fulbert whispers, ‘Say, “Yes, Reverend Mother.”’
‘Yes, Reverend Mother.’ She is unsure of this stern woman in black. Where there are rules, also lie punishments — though at least here she will know the expectations once Fulbert explains them in words she understands. In the past, the rules changed day to day according to her foster mother’s mood.
‘In that case, say your farewells and our Prioress Sister Renee will take you to the dormitory. Welcome to our family, Heloise.’
Heloise turns to Fulbert. ‘You are leaving now? This night?’
‘We will first go over again what you have to know. But, yes, I have been away too long and must return to earn my keep.’
Heloise feels all the hope forged over these past four days drain out through the bottom of her imprisoned feet. He has to steer her out the door, and carries her to a bench in the cloister to sit her down. She cannot speak, although he tries to jolly her with light talk. In the end he settles for explaining the rules in a way she will understand: the bells will toll for Vigils in the darkest hour of night — though she can ignore them — and then again for Lauds at dawn and Prime, Terce, Sext and None throughout the day at three-hour intervals; these she must obey. After Vespers she will eat, before Compline readies all for bed. In the dormitory she must maintain complete silence. She absorbs little; all she can hear is the howl that fills her head.
‘I will visit you every month,’ he says. ‘And if you need me, ask the Reverend Mother to send word with the messengers who ride between Argenteuil and Paris most days. I can be here in half a day unless I am called away to duty.’
‘But what if I need you and you are not there?’ It is hard to speak past the ache in her throat.
‘Then I will come as soon as I can. Trust me, Heloise. I will not desert you; not ever. Now that I have found you, our lives are bound until the day we die.’
All she feels is new-found horror. What if he dies? What then? She has seen the terrible truth of bodies after death: the calf dragged rotten from its mother; her foster mother’s father who turned to bones before their eyes; the white grubs feeding on the carrion they scavenge from the fields. She throws her arms about him, burying her face into his neck.
‘Please, Uncle, never die.’
He holds her tight and she feels sobs breaking from his chest. Her own tears rise, hurting as if wrung from her, yet all sound is swallowed when the bells begin to toll. A mass of black-robed women swarm into the cloister, making their way from the refectory back to the chapel for their final prayers.
‘You are Heloise?’ A voice bristles with impatience.
Heloise glances up as a woman in her middle years bears down on her. Again she burrows into Fulbert’s warmth and tightens her grip. Perhaps if she refuses he will take her home with him instead.
‘Hurry, child. I have been asked to settle you before Compline starts.’
“Heloise shakes her head. Beneath her, Fulbert sighs.
‘It is time, dearest. I will come again soon.’ Standing, he unpeels her clinging hands and steadies her on her feet.
She wails, open-mouthed, great peals of misery as he kisses her head and edges away. She throws herself back at him; arms twining around his leg. The nun steps in and clasps her by each wrist, wresting her free.
‘Go now,’ she barks at Fulbert, her hands as binding as any rope.
‘Please!’ Heloise shrieks at his receding back. ‘Take me with you!’
He turns one last time, his face a mask of anguish. ‘I will see you again soon. I swear it.’ With a groan he rushes for the door that will close between them.
Heloise thrashes, trying to release herself from the biting grip, and spits out the childish insults she has grown so used to having flung at her. The nun picks her up, arms pinned to her sides, and marches the raging girl to a dormitory where rows of straw mattresses fill every vacant space. She dumps Heloise on one and ignores her heart-broken sobs as she searches out a cover to bundle at the girl’s flailing feet.
‘There is a pail in the corner,’ she says, ‘should you need relief in the night. If you wet the bed you must replace the straw yourself.’
With this, the prioress hurries off to pray, and Heloise is left to cry herself to sleep.
Heloise’s first days are filled with constant trepidation. She feels overwhelmed by the throng of bodies, yeasty as rancid cheese, the ceaseless whispers stoking her fretfulness as if they are hissed threats. Night and day, day and night, the abbey echoes with tolling bells, chanted prayers, sniping asides; and every night she stifles her tears to the accompaniment of flatulence, coughs and wheezing snores.
The nuns pay her outbursts little heed, instead rewarding her with a smile or tender touch to the cheek whenever she rallies. She is put to work in the kitchen to occupy her time, and the refectorer assigns her simple tasks: collecting water, scrubbing soil from the garden’s produce, checking through baskets for perished fruit, helping shape the bread for Mass.
It is only when she stumbles across the room wedged between the cloister and the chapter house that something akin to excitement bubbles up. Rude shelves stacked with scrolls and illuminated manuscripts line the walls, wooden cabinets storing the overflow; a room of treasures to linger over, drinking in the richness of the images, allowing her to travel to the other worlds within her head.
By the time Fulbert returns she has her dreams mapped out. She drags him to the library and sweeps her arm around. ‘Look at all this!’ she says. ‘You said I would learn to read, but I have not.’ Heloise lifts an illuminated manuscript down from the shelf and finds the page that most enthrals her. It shows a woman dressed in vivid blue poring over a book, a glowing figure with wings beside her. Around its edges sit four armoured knights on fantastical beasts and seven yellow-breasted birds. Flowers of every possible shape and colour fill the rest of the page. She points to the text framed at its centre. ‘What does this mean?’
‘It is a line from Luke, written in Latin, a language that takes much learning. It says: And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.’
‘I knew she was special,’ she says. ‘See how it shines around her head?’
He laughs. ‘You do not need to read at all, Heloise. It seems you found the meaning all by yourself.’
‘But the words tell so much more.’ She grasps his face between her hands. ‘Please, Uncle, make them teach me now. It will help the days go faster.’
‘Dear one, you are as precocious as your mother.’ He cups his hands over hers and draws them together to kiss her fingertips. ‘Very well, I will speak to the Lady Alberea. If it is possible then I will insist on it.’
‘Oh, thank you, thank you!’ She returns his kiss with her own to his nose, his cheeks, his mouth.
He takes her from the abbey then, and they spend what is left of the day wading in a nearby stream, catching dragonflies to study their fragile wings, tickling lampreys, foraging for mushrooms in the nearby woods. Before he leaves, Fulbert speaks with the Reverend Mother alone in her private chamber off the refectory, while Heloise waits outside the door. When he returns it is with a smile.
‘You will start taking lessons with the novices. It took much argument to convince her you will comprehend, so see that you attend.’
‘I promise to make you proud!’
‘You already do, Hersende. You already do.’
She does not correct him. The praise is enough.