Malling Abbey, 1107
Avicia knelt and prayed. Prayed for wisdom, to know what action would be righteous and true. Prayed for strength, to cope with the horror of what she would shortly be forced to see. But above all, she prayed to feel compassion for the poor unfortunates who were now in her care, to drive out any feelings of revulsion that might be revealed on her face when she saw them for the first time.
She stood up and looked around the chapterhouse of Malling Abbey. The mid-morning prayers had already been completed and the room had been festively decorated to celebrate her arrival. Celebrations could wait, however. After the elation of hearing about her appointment – the first time Malling would have its own abbess – her bishop, Gundulf, had told her of the abbey's dark secret. Since then, it had occupied her every waking moment. Today, she'd see it in the flesh. It, she, they, what was the best word to use? Soon, she would know.
The door opened and a sturdy-looking woman bustled in. She gave a curtsey that turned into a half bow so that her eyes were on the floor as she spoke. ‘I bid thee welcome, Abbess Avicia,' she said, her words having a cold formality that belied their greeting. ‘I am Sister Margaret, your prioress, here to see you are well. I trust your journey was not too taxing?'
Avicia smiled, but saw the gesture was lost as the nun continued her downward stare. Avicia guessed she was a widow like her, someone who had turned to the church after she had become bereaved. She walked over and took the nun's hands and clasped them together, forcing an upward glance. ‘Most uneventful, Sister Margaret,' Avicia replied, her pious smile broadening into more of a friendly grin. The nun looked down again and started picking the sides of her fingernails. Avicia looked round the room. ‘You have prepared well for my arrival. Will the other sisters be joining us soon?'
‘They are awaiting my call. Shall you greet them now, or do you first need to perform your ablutions?' Sister Margaret eyed the door leading out to the cloisters, like a trapped church mouse planning a dash to freedom.
‘I think it best to see them now. How many sisters have we at present, Sister Margaret?'
‘Seven and twenty, Abbess Avicia, including the novices.'
‘And how many others?'
A chill breeze crept into the room, causing the candles to flutter. Sister Margaret made the sign of the cross and clenched the crucifix round her neck. ‘Others?' She tightened her grip on the plain wooden cross.
‘Yes. Others,' Avicia replied, a little more tersely than she would have wanted.
‘There are only a score and seven of God's souls doing His work here,' the prioress replied, her body tensing as she paused before continuing. ‘It would not be God's will to count the abomination.'
Avicia stiffened. ‘It is not up to us to judge God's will, Sister Margaret. And this "abomination" that you speak of. They have a name, do they not?'
Sister Margaret nodded, her cheeks burning red, her chin trembling. ‘Forgive me, Abbess Avicia. I cannot conjure the sight of it into my mind without reflecting why God has chosen to bring such a thing into this world. But when in its presence we do not speak of it thus. May God forgive us, we speak the names they were baptised with. Mary and Eliza. Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, from the respectable and god-fearing family, the Chulkhursts of Biddenden.'
Sister Margaret seemed exhausted by the conversation and Avicia decided it best not to probe any further for the moment. ‘I will meet them with due haste and form my own view,' she said. and clapped her hands in an effort to clear the air. ‘But first, I should not tarry in keeping the sisters waiting. Bring them forth, good prioress. Other matters can wait until after I have made their acquaintance and we have enjoyed these fine victuals together.'
Within minutes, the nuns were all assembled. The arrival of Malling Abbey's first abbess was a momentous event, and preparations had been underway for days, ever since a messenger had arrived alerting them of Avicia's imminent arrival. The new abbess moved round the room greeting each sister in turn, repeating each nun's name back to them despite the impossibility of remembering it. Every woman was dressed in an identical long tunic, with a veil, the wimple, covering their hair and every part of their head, bar the face. It should have been a joyous occasion, but a pall of gloom hung in the air. Avicia spoke first to the obedientiaries, the senior nuns who had been given specific duties – the cellarer who supervised the general provisioning of the convent, the sacrist responsible for the safekeeping of books, and so on. Then the other nuns were introduced to her, strictly in order of their length of service, the newest nuns last. Finally, she met the oblates, or novice nuns – young girls in their mid-teens sent by their parents to gain an education in the only way possible. Throughout the whole process, there was never a glimpse of a smile, never a flicker of excitement in recognition that this was a key moment in the abbey's history.
Avicia knew right away that the scourge had to be lifted. ‘I will see my chambers now, Sister Margaret,' she announced as the nuns pecked listlessly at the meagre spread of food on offer. ‘Please lead the way.' Without any valediction to the other nuns, Avicia headed out of that chamber of despair.
They arrived at Avicia's quarters, a spartan cell with one small window, high in the corner. A shaft of light shone down to a bedside table, dust particles dancing in the sunlight. She picked up her bible and placed it in the ray of light. Sister Margaret went to leave but Avicia stopped her and closed the door.
‘I have met all my charges now, save for the ones we talked of before,' she said, walking back to touch the sunlit bible with the tips of her fingers. ‘There is deep pain in this house of God and I need to see the reason, without further delay. Take me to meet them.'
Margaret looked at her with dull eyes, then spoke in a monotone voice. ‘If that be your desire, Abbess Avicia, then I bow to your command. They are ready for the day and should be at play. Come, follow me.'
They walked across the abbey courtyard to the stables. The last of them had been converted into a room, with a sturdy wooden door instead of a horse gate. As Sister Margaret slid back the bolt on the door, Avicia felt a wave of nausea rise up from her stomach. She closed her eyes briefly to compose herself.
The door opened and Avicia stepped inside and gasped. Not in horror, but at the normality of what she was seeing. Two young girls, dressed in nursery smocks, sitting on the floor playing with a small collection of rag dolls. They glanced up, and chanted, ‘Good morning, Sister Margaret,' in dutiful greeting. Then they saw Avicia standing behind. They both squeezed the rag doll they were holding, one cradling her doll to her chest, the other staring at Avicia with a probing gaze.
This was not the monstrous sight she had been expecting. Avicia cleared her throat and spoke softly to the girls. ‘Good morrow, young maidens. I am Abbess Avicia, and I have travelled here from Rochester to come and live with you in this fine place. Will you tell me your names?'
The girls looked over to Sister Margaret for guidance. ‘Speak to the good Abbess,' she said, her voice having the harsh insistence of an authoritarian school teacher. There was silence. ‘I'm sorry, Abbess Avicia, they are not used to strangers. Speak, girls!'
‘Hush, Sister Margaret, it is we who are disturbing their play.' Avicia went over and knelt by them. ‘Can I see your doll?' she asked the one closer to her.
The girl turned, causing the other to grab her shoulder to keep her balance and Avicia could see their clothing clearly for the first time. Two smocks, much too big for them, sewn together at the waist. It disguised what was beneath, except for the fact that children moved together and remained perfectly aligned, side-by-side but looking slightly away from each other. Avicia forced herself not to stare, instead focussing on looking at the girl straight in the eye.
The girl thrust the doll into Avicia's hand and Avicia detected the smallest of murmurs from her lips. ‘Pardon?' she said, continuing to keep her gaze into the young girl's eyes. ‘Were you saying her name?'
‘Edith.' A little stronger this time.
‘Edith? What a lovely name. She looked over to the other girl. ‘And what's your doll called?'
The other girl bit on her hand and started shaking her head vigorously. The action caused them both to start quivering. ‘Stop it, Mary, stop it!' the first girl cried. She turned to Avicia. ‘Her doll's called Maud. But it's stupid, just like her.'
Avicia moved away. ‘I don't think she's stupid, just shy,' she said, overdoing the smiling as she spoke. ‘So, if she is Mary, you must be Eliza.' There was no reaction from the girl, so Avicia spoke again, more hurriedly this time. ‘Well girls, I would like to stay and talk, but I have a busy day ahead.' She clenched her teeth, turning her smile into a grimace, her eyes betraying her frustration at being unable to keep up the pretence of normality. ‘Enjoy your playtime, I will –'. Unable to finish the sentence, she fled from the room, Sister Margaret following behind.
Outside the room, Avicia closed the door and leant against it, silently sobbing. She caught Sister Margaret's look of pity. It gave her the resolve she needed.
‘I shame myself with this display of weakness. You will not see the like of this from me again.' She was feeling stronger now. ‘I have many questions that need to be answered. What is the nature of their predicament? Are they in good health? The quiet one, is she an imbecile?'
Sister Margaret waited until they had started walking across the cloisters before she spoke. ‘They are nary more than a hand's length joined together, sharing the same sacrum, the holy bone at the base of the spine. The holy bone is where the soul resides, so their two spirits are forever entwined. But their corporeal bodies are hale and hearty, and they are in sound mind. Mary is the quiet one, she lets Eliza do the speaking for her. But when they are alone, we hear them converse with each other. Their minds are separate, but they are destined to share one body until God has mercy on them. We pray every day for their release into heaven.'
‘And until that day? What life do they have here?'
They are prayed to six times a day. They are made comfortable in their confinement. They want for nothing.' There was a long pause before Sister Margaret could bring herself to speak some more. ‘Gundulf says we must do nothing to hasten the end.' Her eyes darted over to the locked door of the children's cell. ‘But he has never seen the sight of them since they arrived here. I held a council with the obedientiaries before your arrival. We are all of the hope that you will be more merciful, and petition Gundulf to let us assist them to be with God more quickly.'
Avicia shook her head. ‘Gundulf has given me no counsel as to what the fate of the Maids should be. He bid me come here, see their predicament for myself, and with that knowledge take the path that is the most just and righteous. I do not know yet what that path should be, but I saw nothing of the devil's work in this first encounter. I will talk to the Maids some more, then convene a council of the obedientiaries.' They had reached the door of Avicia's quarters now, and Sister Margaret stood to one side, her pose submissive, betraying no sign of her reaction to Avicia's words.
‘I will listen to the debate with an open mind,' Avicia said, trying to sound reassuring. ‘There is much I need to learn about this terrible responsibility that has been thrust upon us. I will talk to the physician who treats them. It may well be that God will decide for us.'
‘No physician has set foot in their chamber since they arrived in their swaddling clothes,' Sister Margaret replied. ‘That was five summers ago. Sister Agnes is our infirmarian, and she is skilled at laying balm on them, to cure them of any childhood ailments. No outsider has ever been told of their existence.'
‘And for five years, the girls have flourished, save for the normal afflictions that all infants have to bear?' Avicia did not wait for Sister Margaret's confirmation. ‘Then we have two robust children in our care, who seem to be of sound mind and body. Let me dwell on that fact. My destiny may be to create some joy out of the misery that surrounds us all in this place.'
Sister Margaret's silence betrayed what she thought of Avicia's optimism.
‘I will take my leave of you now,' Avicia said eventually, reigning in her words to hide her frustration. ‘We will talk of this again, once I've reflected on the events of this day.'
With that, she entered her chamber and, once the door was closed, collapsed onto her bed. She replayed these last few minutes over and over again in her head. Nothing she had been told by Gundulf could have prepared her for what she had encountered. Nothing she had experienced in life could tell her what actions to take. But she had to decide what to do next, and decide wisely.
The fate of the Maids depended on it.
The sound of the abbey bell roused Avicia from her fitful sleep. A heavy burden of exhaustion and despair pressed down on her as she lay motionless on her bed. After a few minutes, she closed her eyes and felt herself tumble back into slumber. That caused her to jump up with a start. It would be unforgivable for her to miss Lauds, the early morning prayer service.
She scuttled down the hallway and arrived just as the last of the nuns were assembling. She sat alone, up against the wall in the furthermost pew. A few seconds later, just as the service was about to begin, three oblates, none of them older than fourteen, darted into the space next to her, earning a stern glower from Sister Margaret for their tardiness. Avicia couldn't stop herself from smiling at this display of youthful fecklessness, but then adjusted her features into a more appropriate pose of dutiful obedience. The three young nuns were now composing themselves after their hurried entrance until the one nearest to Avicia suddenly realised they, the most junior of all the nuns, were sharing the abbess's pew. A look of wild panic spread across her eyes, as she nudged her two compatriots who winced as they too realised their transgression.
At that moment the service began, and the girls started fidgeting, trying to work out what was the lesser of the two evils, staying where they were or disrupting the service by moving. Avicia leant forward, bending down so that only the girls could see her. They were all staring at her now, paralysed by indecision. Avicia held a finger to her lips, then gently flapped the palm of her hand, signalling for them to stay put, a single eyebrow raised in rebuke.
That small moment of light relief raised her spirits, and when the service was finished she spoke to Sister Margaret with a newly found strength. ‘To conclude our conversation is pressing, I know,' she told the prioress. ‘But first, I need to get to know the Maids better. Now I will break my fast, then I will spend the morning in their company. What is the best manner to garner their trust and confidence, so that they will speak openly to me?'
The prioress shrugged. ‘Sister Agnes spends her time with them freely, even when not required to tend their ailments. You will find her under the north abbey wall, where she cultivates her healing herbs and remedies. That is, if she has not stolen away to see her charges again.' She paused for a moment, as if considering whether to say more. Finally, she spoke. ‘You might do well to remind her of her primary duty to the abbey,' the prioress said, with as much assertiveness as she dared. ‘The coughing season is almost upon us, and no linctus has been prepared.'
Avicia found the small rectangular garden, sheltered against the abbey wall, but still able to catch all the morning rays of sunlight. Sister Agnes was tending a cluster of plants with spikes of small blue flowers. She turned as she heard Avicia approach and jumped to her feet.
‘Good morrow, Sister Agnes,' Avicia said, nodding a greeting. ‘This is a fine physic garden you have created here. Pray tell me, what is that fair flower in your hand?'
Sister Agnes bowed her soft round face, her deep brown eyes giving her the appearance of youthful innocence, despite being close to Avicia's age. ‘The blue hyssop, Abbess Avicia. It is in flower, so time to collect the petals to infuse the syrup. It will warm away the travails of winter.' She gave a nervous curtsey, betraying her nervousness as to why Avicia had come to visit.