The Hazelnut

by E.C. Traganas

Norwich, 1413

A long, thin shadow stretches across the hard dirt floor of my cramped cell. I recognize my wizened form in the gloaming: lean, tenuous, a lonely thread pulled from my worn and faded frock. This is my time, the measure of my years that, like my shadow—straight as a pin—has spanned one corner of this room to the other. I gasp in momentary surprise at this unexpected miracle, for how else could I explain this unlikely journey? I have traveled a lifetime to reach my ancient years, traversing the constellations, escaping beyond the shackled constraints of my frail flesh like a vaporous cloud, unfolding, shifting, rising higher towards a light so transparent and pure that no sound could name it and enclose its essence. And yet—here I sit, a foolish grin of contentment etching itself on my ghostly features in this tight anchorhold, sealed off from the world, my earthly boundaries compassed by a mere few paces hither and back.

I slip noiselessly into my accustomed place and peer out through the narrow slits of my squint towards the altar as it is prepared for Matins, the holes so narrow and restrictive that my vision is purposefully trained solely on the stark, gaunt figure draping the central crucifix. Congregants may come and go, yet I can only hear their faint murmurings and chatter unseen from behind my walled partition. I dwell in perpetual twilight, yet my unfailing sense of smell tells me it is early morning. The dampness of the fens seeps in through the cracks of my parlor casement like a fresh-scented riband of new-trodden grass, with a mingling, pungent undertone of woolly lanolin. Somewhere in the glen, a lamb is being shorn. It is the season of spring, the resurrection of new life, the shearing away of the old.

My beeswax taper flickers as I noiselessly recite my devotions. I raise my fingers to my forehead; their trembling pallor catches a momentary glint of candlelight. The lily whiteness of your nails attests to womanly sloth and sinfulness, my confessor had chided so long ago. Make yourself useful. You have chosen to bury yourself away from life. Use these hands to dig the dirt of your own grave as your Rule enjoins and prepare yourself for burial. These pasty fingers had obediently blackened themselves with congealed blood as they relentlessly dug and scraped away the dirt of my future grave here in this walled-up enclosure until kindly Bishop Henry of blessed memory intervened and instead pressed a sheaf of parchment skin into my calloused hands and instructed me to write and reflect on the nature of divine love.

The maid is astir in the adjoining cubicle. I unfasten the wooden shutter connecting my circumscribed world to hers, push away the curtain and place my night basin atop the ledge. God’s grace to you, Holy Mother, Alyce says by way of greeting. Inwardly I think, I am neither holy and certainly no longer a mother. How many times have I asked her to simply address me as her sister? This exaggerated reverence is almost unnatural to my ears, placing upon me the strain of a magnificence I cannot ever hope to attain. I am your sister in the Lord, dear Alyce, I remonstrate, but the woman remains adamant in her adoration, so I no longer protest. But yes, I was indeed once a mother so long ago in a forgotten life; only the sound of a passing oxcart sharpens my senses and tears my heart like a jagged shearing knife when I think of my bairns being carried away in the dead of night by the Great Mortality like so many other creatures twisted like broken wispy twigs and piled atop one another, glassy eyes staring into nothingness, frozen and contorted by the shock of disbelief for what had so swiftly befallen them. I pray for their poor souls to this day, and marvel that I, a wretched, unlearned old woman, should have somehow been chosen to outlast them all.

Alyce places a wooden bowl of warm frumenty and a cup of sage water on the ledge and I dutifully break my fast. My body has shrunken over the years—my need for sustenance is minimal, although I have yet to achieve that rarefied state of saintliness that would enable one to subsist solely on the daily Eucharistic bread. Even so, this small ration will suffice; my flesh may be shriveled and papery like the peeling bark of the birch trees I remember swaying long ago in my garden grove, but this very weightlessness has freed my mind and disengaged it from distraction to soar skywards. I have no use for the savory or cloyingly sweet temptations a mortal palate may trick itself into enjoying. My visions have been my only sustenance through life, and like an enigma, their meaning is so simple, so clear to any that may hear them. I find myself grinning again.

Holy Mother, Alyce says through the little window. Bring me my shears, I request. It is that time of year again. My hair must be shorn, what little hair is left on this withered, hoary head, I think to myself as I remove my wimple. There is barely any discourse between us, but my maid and I have fallen into a rhythm of voiceless understanding through the years. Reverend Mother, there is a visitor for you today.

What irony! I have longed for solitude as an anchorite and this life has brought me into increasing contact with one soul or another day in day out. It is expected of me, I know, to listen, to advise, to guide and pray, to think not of my needs for seclusion but to be a sacrifice to others. You are the pride of our humble town, Alyce always observes. Alright, then. See her to the parlor, I consent.

I hear the scraping of the heavy bolt and feel the rush of air as the outer door is opened. I take my seat before the small opening, check that the black velvet curtain is tightly drawn and bid my guest welcome. Blessings to you, my sister, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Your prayers, Holy Mother, my guest implores. We sit in silence, unseen behind the cloth partition. An aura of fresh, perfumed air so unlike the familiar sour tang of baker’s bread, butcher’s blood and musty sweat seeps into my presence. The raiment is costly; from the swishing of her kirtle, my heightened senses can distinguish a cloth of substance, a satin damask perhaps. The woman is no ordinary villein, and most certainly not from these parts. I hear the distant cathedral clock strike the hour. How long we have been submerged in meditation, I do not know. Time seems to have escaped us both. May God be with you, I whisper. All shall be well, and all shall be well. There is a vacuum of space and a gusty breeze as the outer door is once again shut tight.

Holy Mother, Alyce beckons from the maid’s window. I presented the esteemed lady with your revelations, as you requested. I also placed the little token into her hand, and she smiled knowingly, just as you said she would.

I reach into my pocket and feel the smooth warmth of the tiny hazelnut, knowing that all creation is contained within its glistening form: all that God has made, all that is loved, all that God keeps. The ever-present smile spreads across my lips again as I resume my vigil.

Author of the critically applauded debut novel Twelfth House, E.C. Traganas has published in Möbius, Ibbetson Street PressThe Penwood ReviewSacred JourneyAgape Review, The Aurorean, Sacred Paths, and numerous other literary journals. Hailed as ‘an artfully created masterpiece’ and a ‘must-read’, her new work of short poetry, Shaded Pergola, was recently released by Tropaeum Press andfeatures her original illustrations. A resident of New York City, Ms. Traganas enjoys a varied career as a Juilliard-trained concert pianist & composer, activities that have earned her accolades from the international press.

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