The baby had gone to sleep and the boys and Eva, her daughter, had gone to watch Manton drill with the other men in the exercise/muster the village held each month. She cherished the silence. It reminded her of the quiet of the convent—not a pleasant memory, but she did experience some beautiful moments in the years she lived there. She hurried to the kitchen table, wiped it clean, dried it, and spread out the fine linen cloth she had spent too much money on, opened a bottle of ink, got out a stylus, and began to write.
The stylus flew across the pages, only interrupted by her dipping it in the inkpot. For a week she had composed in her head, and now the words rushed out like the swollen rivulets at spring thaw, gushing from her brain to her tongue to her hands to the letters on the fabric.
She wrote uninterrupted for an hour. Her son, Grinden, burbled and made noises now and then so she knew he was well. Lorna filled three pages before the noise of someone treading on the reeds she had strewn on the path that led to her door reach her ears. She wondered who it might be (it was too early for her husband and children to be back). Then she saw, to her chagrin, Selwyn, the priest. She and forgotten today was the day he collected tithes.
“Good day, Selwyn, she said when he stopped before her door, her voice more clipped than she had wanted it to be.
“Blessings on you, Lorna. I see you’re writing.”
“Sister Elva taught you to write, did she not?”
“She did,” And, Lorna thought, called me a stupid little slut, a whore, and a trollop every time I got something wrong. At age twelve, and having been isolated in the convent most of her life, Lorna did not even know what those words meant. She gathered the courage to ask one of the other nuns in the convent about them. The woman—a French woman who had come from a religious house in that land to help organize the new nunnery in the wilds of Britain—was scandalized and told the Mother Superior, who immediately gave Lorna a beating so severe she could not get out of bed for three days and, when she did get up and was given punitive duties outside in the snow and cold, caught a fever and almost died. Sister Elva equated slowness in learning with sinfulness. Lorna had never understood how imperfect mastery of a task could be equated with sin. She learned slowly, but after she finally mastered a task she could perform it remarkably well. So it was with writing. After she learned to write she soon became secretary for the convent, wrote letters, copied devotional texts, and kept records. In order to write, one had to know how to read, and she had excelled at this well. By age eighteen she had achieved the status of scholar and could read Latin and her native English. At age twenty, to the scandal of the Mother Superior, her father took her out of the convent.
Selwyn ranted, raved, and even went so far as to call down imprecations on her father’s head when he pulled Lorna out of the convent. Her father had given her as a postulant not long after his conversion (she was six years old). Disillusionment with the church eventually sent him back to worshipping the old gods. Since Lorna had not taken final vows, they could not stop him from asserting his rights over her. And she rejoiced to leave the place of so many bad memories and emerge a literate, educated woman who could live out her life free of the asceticism that had made her so miserable.
“Your loss to the convent was grievous after that good sister spent so many years training you and nurturing your talent.”
“My father took me from the convent, sir. I had no choice but to leave, as I had no choice but to enter when I was only a child.”
She wanted to be civil—not because he deserved civility but because she wanted to return to her writing. When he did not reply, she said, “Selwyn, I’m rather busy now. I need to get on with the tasks before me.”
“With your writing?”
“And what are you writing?”
“It is really none of your concern, but I am writing down an ancient story.”
“Indeed. Now, by your leave”—
“I wondered if you might contribute something for the support of the church and the convent.”
She restrained herself. Sarcasm would only exacerbate the situation.
“I have no money.”
“I smell bread. Perhaps a loaf?”
She had baked two loaves that morning. Their fragrance had filled the house.
“We are low on flour. You know Manton and I are not wealthy.”
He reached around, slid the carrying bag he kept slung over his shoulder so he could hold it in front of him, and pulled it open.
“Anything you might want to give, good lady.”
His bag had become a joke in the village. Greyish green in color, he loaded it with food or money people gave as offerings to the church. Made of the skin of some sort of animal (no one knew for certain what animal), people speculated on it. Most of the speculations were so obscene she did not like to think on them—though she had to admit they were funny.
He leaned forward, trying to look past her.
“Selwyn, I have nothing to give.”
“And what is it you are writing?”
“As I told you, it’s an ancient tale—the tale of Beowulf. Now you need to go.”
He started to speak, but just as he opened his mouth, a loud cry sounded. Grinden had awakened. Lorna’s mind moved rapidly.
“Heavens, my child is awake,” she said. “I must nurse him.” She began to unfasten the front of her dress.
Selwyn, a prude, beat a hasty retreat as Lorna bared her breasts. When he was gone, she laughed, refastened her garment, turned, and walked over to the crib. She knew the rhythms of her youngest child. He had wet his wrappings. She took off the wet cloth, washed his bottom and front, put on a new clout, kissed and breathed on him and, when he cooed and smiled, lowered him into the crib. He settled in and fell back asleep, as he usually did.
When he was calmly sleeping she went back to her writing.
Lorna still professed Christianity. What she had endured in the convent had not turned her heart from the Christian message. In fact, she had sought to bring a bit of the Christian faith into her poem—to rewrite the ancient tale in a framework that took her faith into account.
I must do it carefully and subtly, she had told herself, so as not to turn listeners away or have them say she had adulterated a venerable ancient saga. Her references of the Christian faith, though clear, were few. She made Grendel a son of Cain, the figure in the Bible who had killed his brother. The bard who sang in Heorot, the Mead Hall, sings a song based on the story of creation in Genesis, a story she had always loved to hear and, later, to read. Some of the most beautiful poetry even written, she thought. She had added a few reference to the Lord, the Creator, here and there, and that was enough.
Manton and the children would be home soon. Grinden would be awake in probably half an hour. She would wrap up her writing. Then a smile came to her lips. She had decided to stop before penning the description Beowulf gives of Grendel, but, her eyes full of fierce joy, she wrote rapidly so she could finish what she wanted to do before the return of her family once more filled the house with the noises of domestic life. She scribbled diligently, giving Beowulf’s account of what Grendel looked like, then put in some newly minted lines:
He had this roomy pouch
a strange accoutrement, intricately strong
and hung at ready, a rare patchwork
of devilishly fitted dragon skins.
She stopped, holding the stylus, smiling broadly, glowing with the eloquent nastiness of what she had just done. Everyone in the area who heard those lines would know the thing to which they referred. Part of the jokes men and women told about Selwyn’s pouch was that it looked like it was made of toad skin—or maybe, people quipped, it was made of dragon skin, since his face was so ugly looking at it would kill any dragon. She stamped her feet in joy at what she had written and then put up her precious, costly writing material. If her poem was sung in more distant reaches no one would get the joke and perhaps it would seem implausible that Grendel would carry a pouch over his shoulder. But in a poem anything is possible, and people would believe anything you put there (as Plato had observed).
She head her youngest son begin to cry again. Hungry, not wet, she noted, since she knew the intonations of his various laments. She undid the top of her dress so she could nurse him. In a short while, her family would be coming home.
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