After 1700 the monasteries lost it. The saints changed: they puffed and spread like cakes, carved hair gone blonde and curly. The fens around Ely Cathedral were drained and parceled off for farms, the starving deaths lessened. People grew old happily. Things got lame.
So a new craze sprung up: to have a hermit on your property. Every manor house with any style had one. His hut could be arranged at the edge of a lawn and balanced by a fruit tree. Baroness R. started the trend by buying a watered acreage with a rock pile where an actual hermit lived. She could have had him driven off. But why?
Laughing and blowing crumbs off her fingers, the baroness likes discussing him at parties. Everyone watches her tell it. How he’d been handsome till he fell for this one girl, but after he pinned his heart to her she went off all sassy in somebody’s carriage. She never returned and he took to the woods. He beat his breast a little. He carried boulders for miles. He built a cave.
Now that’s love.
The baroness lets her lids droop, just a moment, then calls up a tight smile. She ushers everyone onto the balcony.
I am telling you about her because when we first met you pissed me off. You shook me up. I thought I was angry.
“There. Out there.” says the baroness on the balcony, pointing with her white palms to a dip in the tree line.
“He eats lichens and fish. He beats himself up: throws a log in the air then aims for it to fall across his back—Bomp! Like that, I can hear it from the house sometimes, bomp! and then you hear him yelling”—at this she makes sounds like a lamb in a burlap sack. She likes a good party and to tell this story. She sucks on the ends of her ribbons.
What if the girl hadn’t even meant anything by it, the baroness likes to conjecture. What if the girl had died of fever and he never heard. Or hit her head on a stone, and awoke in another town, with her mind in a snowstorm.
“Could be,” says the baroness (her mouth so thoughtful-round now you could put your thumb right in), “she’s looking for him all this time and he’s too damn sorry for himself to stop by her house and find out.”
You warmed to me. I saw you with your shirt off and posed in all my doorframes and let me tell you, that sure changed my mind. I found you in a book about the hermit of the courtly entertainments, Elizabethan. He belongs to Queen Maria who traveled with an entourage of twenty-nine. Thirty horses like a line of sugar-ants. They went off to take the exact measure of her greatness. As they wound through the forests—her forests—she’d scream and slide from her pony into shit-black mud.
“Oh look a little skull! With teeth!”
“This moss”—she’d put her face against it—“is the softest moss ever.” A page would add it to the ledger. The ecstasy of detail built and built. She’d known about these things, but not where to find them! Or that green could get so green!
She was, to be fair, very young. Her kingdom compounded every time her eye went anywhere. They rode for weeks. Her pelvis went numb in the saddle. The cities planned pageants for her visit. At one village her pony stepped into a clearing, snorted, and stopped. Actors scrambled to find their places in the grass. A boy crouched waiting for his cue. His momma had cut him a wool beard and smeared his eyes with ash and he keeps pulling the long sleeves of the cowl over his hands. His left foot ends in a smooth knuckle. At the director’s signal he limps to his place and raises his fists.
The boy hermit looks straight at the queen. She looks straight at him. Her eyes are no color, just punch-outs in a lantern.
“Yummy.” The boy says it guttural, then whistles. The knights gasp offense theatrically, as rehearsed.
The boy hermit keeps her eyes in his. How dare he. His stare exerts a pressure on the queen until a hole appears through which she spurts a laugh. Is he pervy or too-sweet? Slanting his brow like a man who is certain and slings onions at her, white as golf balls. She catches only one.
This boy hermit in costume is from an era when there aren’t hermits living anymore. He just stands around on manuscripts looking exaggerated and sore and out of time. This boy hermit is you in those weeks I breathed near your coat on purpose. When you had pressed your mouth against my eye as though to suckle out my brain, then didn’t. He stands where you can see him. He gestures with one hand, in a big sleeve, so you can sarcastically follow whatever way he points.
At dinner she shreds and dents the onion with her nails, under the table. It stinks and she holds it for hours. She’s convincing, but still, I was wrong. The better I learn you, the older the version of hermit you are.
I mean you really did me in. You made lucid jokes. You kept me on the line while you fed stray cats steak with your hands out the kitchen door.
You told an old story of the boy who cheated the Ramadan fast by hiding eggs in his cheeks, until everyone thought he had a huge cyst, and a surgeon cut slits in each cheek, and the yolks dropped out into the hand of the surgeon, but everyone just gave praise a growth so yellow with infection would soon heal. An optimistic story. People believe the best. What could go wrong in such a world?
For half a year you talked like that, long distance. You were rambling good company. Then last time you visited, you sat on my neighbors’ front stoop, because I do not have a front stoop of my own. They seemed to be watching TV. You sat beside their open window like you owned the place. It’s only property, you said. It seemed like a mean joke you were playing on them.
You said chill the fuck out honey. I acted all grim. When you pressed your flank to my flank I pretended I was elsewhere. I figured you then as the Coptic kind of hermit who takes up camp outside the city. I’d be wrong about this one too. But let me explain. You’ll see how I made the mistake. He is entitled. He has great representation.
Tall donut walls surrounded their cities. They’d let young men sit up there as lookouts, so they could feel brave and large against the sky while all the hot girls slept.
The walled cities held monasteries that made books and cave-nosed songs and Latin. The monks rose early to not eat. They’d sleep on wet floors and outdo one another in moderation. They kept good humor. Their minds ran clear. They worked hard and saw beauty in their efforts. They made their lives in the pink open palm of the Lord.
Such balance bred crushing depression. In every cell they gummed their knuckles trying to stifle their swamped, empty cries. We are doing no good here, a bitch of a voice would start to say in a monk’s head. All I do is wallow. I take excessive pride—that my lathing is clean. Cleaner than John’s. This boastfulness is hateful. I too much love my friends. This whole place smells like somebody’s asshole and we’re just supposed to pretend it doesn’t smell like somebody’s asshole.
The air left their chests and devils swam in their water pitchers. When it was time to rise in the morning they lay there half dead in their tunnels of flesh, wondering if this was just exactly what it means to feel like shit. Lower than shit. They tapped their bald skulls against the stone walls. They found they couldn’t even give themselves a headache.
“Who am I kidding?” they thought. And then again, a minute later, “Who am I kidding?” In prayer the monks’ jawbones resist their skin. They chew instead of pray. They flap. A jaw could tear off at any moment, like the flawed wing of a jet. When they walk outside and the wind is cold they think it has sought them to slap them. “Persecute” is what the wind does to them.
This is all expected, this fit. It is called “the noonday sun.”
Often enough “the noonday sun” lifts after a few weeks. It scabs off and leaves them alone. Their eyes open like lilies, stinking and wet, and they come to love the life again, as a baby loves a tit, and they come to love their brothers, as a tit loves the tit by its side. Other times they climb out a window and go do some filthy thing. They climb back that evening, whistling, no one the wiser. The dirty ones have the best chances. Most of the rest just leave for good.
A few go to the friar and ask, “umm, Father?”
The friar turns, so so humble, his hands pressed together like an adder-head. He says, “Yes, my son?”
“Could I go? I should go. Try that Desert Fathers thing they’re doing out there.”
“Are you called?” he says. He does a lilting “Hmmm?” at the end of each word so he sounds like a tool.
“Yeah. I’m uh, I’m definitely called.”
He warns them it is a hard life, but tells them they can go. He puts one palm forward and hovers it, benevolently, over the forehead of the doubting brother. “You’re kidding me?” the doubting brother doubts, kneeling. “Forget this place.”
At the city door the porters drink only honey-wine, no water. They sleep all day in the sun and their piss tumbles out chunky with salt. Chances to question real travelers are too rare. They are pretty well primed for violence. A desert-bound brother must embrace the coming freedom from barter. Because it should be no surprise when the guards at the door take all his cash. He should give up excessive possessiveness of his person. Because they’re certain to frisk him like a plucked goose and maybe put a finger up his butt.
Don’t worry. For all the trouble they start, opening that door is still the one sure pleasure they get all year. Guarantee you they’ll pull the chains with all their six arms and enjoy the sound of the groaning.
He should ready to walk. Out the door and then west through the graves, through the bones and garbage, and then through the razor grasses. The ground will be rubble, but nothing like the hardship he hoped for. He will see wild cattle. Or lions, but remember that the lions out here are sweet and dumb as goats. The wind calms everything.
He should look for a far place, but not so distant pilgrims can’t reach it by foot. Tomorrow he can start hollowing a tree, pulling out the rot with his hands. He’ll have this thought: “My hands are claws.” Everyone has the claw-thought, usually on day two or three.
For the next twenty years he will stand in the trunk to sleep.
Hopefully winds will pummel him. By month two or three he ought to forget what are ‘hands’. He should lose the need to talk. Lose all memories, facial control. His eyebrows will seize. His tongue will fuse with the tissue at the roof of his mouth.
Right after he gets really blank and useless, the religious hordes will probably, finally, find him. They will bring bread, and questions about their own sins and their fuck-up youngest sons. They will return to the city with stories about Saint (Name) of the (Flower, Place) the Little Beauty of the Anything. They will claim they saw him nimbed with a halo of rays. People like to get their money’s worth.
Have you picked a good name yet? Lazarus of Cairo wore a girdle of leaves. Thomas of Drew ate loaves of ash. Amarya of Bath bled roses. A good name keeps people talking. Talk is a hermit’s bottom line. Pilgrims can only give food and wine if you’ve made sure they know you exist.
I was wrong about the brothers of the walled city. You’re not like them at all. We’re both too soft in our middles and our lips kiss back when kissed, reflexively.
We lack intention. And you are a shape in my bed now, so I shouldn’t need you to stand for anything. You’re here. You’re too here. If I dream badly and startle awake at night you complain at me, wordlessly and with your eyes still closed, until I curl back around your spine and let you sleep. But let me try another.
So, the hermits of the medieval English countryside were usually noble girls. Chickie would be a little too full of herself to join a regular cloister, which was more like a dorm or a shelter. Anyhow Chickie has money, she’s a bit provided for. Sometimes these girls are already married. Sometimes they have so much cash it’s appealing to leave it behind.
She’d write to the bishop about her wish. Or her father would write to the bishop about the wish his pious daughter had. The letter would say how fancy and holy her family is. It would say how there’s plenty of money to support such a good girl and two servants. Whatever it costs to say enough masses. And bricks and lime to build the cell.
She will be enclosed by the bishop himself. Her family will help to move in some furniture. The bishop will start to brick up the entrance to her little cell, then give her last rites and let a groundskeeper finish the bricking. She will stand in the center of the little room and shake her head as if her ears have water in them. The door will go away.
Anchorholds are positioned on the south side of a church. The window facing in is called the Squint, so she can see when they do mass. The window out to the churchyard is the Gossip. People stop by like a drive through McDonalds to ask her advice. She talks with them but tries not to get too attached. If her family comes to visit her—and they will—she tries to blank her face and talk like a cipher of god, not like that’s her daddy out there. Most anchoresses will tell you that this is the hardest part.
In a couple days she’ll hit the giddy stride. She will love the way rectangles of sun move over the four walls and then fade. She will recite prayers with her forehead on the floor. She should not own cattle. She will think about the cattle she doesn’t own. They roam out of the churchyard tempting her to sneak around the village at night, leading them back. A handicraft like spinning or weaving might help keep her sane.
Remember the funds for two girl servants? They sleep at the nearest convent and walk four miles each morning to feed her. They love her and she reaches her hand out. Their cheeks are cold from the winter rain and her hand is warm. Do you see yet how I know this is you? The two servants come from poorer families than the anchoress, but they will be of even better faith. They work hard at being true virgins (hands above their heads in bed). They bring her water, pass new loaves of bread through the window, empty her pots, pray for her.
The girls make their beds at night at the convent, on the floor near the kitchen fire. Side by side they lay in the large dark room. Every word, and especially every prayer, comes with an echo of the other girl’s whispering voice. She is a skirt that drags on a floor. They wake before dawn and start all the fires. Smirking when the other girl has put herself on a fast—she keeps tripping and growing frustrated and shifting her load—still she can tell when she gives in, not by the cheese on her sister’s breath but from the thud of her busted heart writhing in pissy failure.
The girls think a lot about the smallness of the anchorhold. They love that face so friendly through the viewfinder. They love her hand with its nails like a little “c”. She is happy. Trees look great against a gray sky, but maybe if you never had to see them again, they’d look better. The girls’ hearts get goofy and light on the walk back. They swing their empty buckets.
Of course they know that she will die in there. They know once she is taken out and buried, the bishop must choose someone new. They know he will anoint one of her two servants. But they don’t know: will it be me, or will it be her? They expect to learn to ‘covet.’ If the new girl inside the cell dies, her sister would be anointed and bricked in. But it’s equally likely that the girl still out there carrying water might be the first to pass away. Some other girl would get hired to replace her while her twin stays locked up. Like they’d both hoped.
This is who I decided on. Who you are. Or what is this love. You are both the anchoress’ girls, not knowing, and both the girls, split.