The curtain was drawn and he peered into the chamber. A woman, clothed in a plain brown woollen robe sat on a bench, sewing. A white wimple framed what he could see of her face, which was not much, since she was looking downwards watching her needle as it undulated through her embroidery. She did not look up, and it appeared she neither heard nor sensed his presence. The room was dark and gloomy, but she had candles that seemed to allow her enough light with which to see. He watched her for some moments, not knowing how to approach her for he was nervous, and did not know if he could stand to be with her again.
Suddenly, he felt the bile rise in his gullet and felt the urge to run. He had come all this way only because his sister had begged him to go make his peace with her. On the journey, he’d promised himself that he would not think of peace until he had heard what she had to say – and now, he did not want to hear what she had to say. Nonetheless, he fought the urge to run, because when all was said and done, he needed her to hear what had burned in his heart for so long.
Finally, he coughed to get her attention. Her gaze hovered at his feet before slowly drifting to meet his eyes. He saw the alarm in her face. Felt her fear. It gave him a sense of power.
“Mother…” he said with a faint smile.
She stood up, a jerky motion, and lost her embroidery to the floor. “I prayed that you would come to see me,” she said. And the smile she gave him was genuine, unlike the mocking smile that he had given her.
“And I prayed that I would never see you again… And yet… here I am…” The words slipped off his tongue gently, much more gently than he had intended.
“Aye, here we both are.” She took a step forward holding her arms out to him as if she would embrace him. He hoped that she would not. He could not bear for her to touch him. The thought made him flinch and he stiffened, visibly.
Her smile weakened. “You have grown so tall. Now you are taller than I,” she said. She was nervous, he thought.
As she wittered on, making observations of how well he looked, his eyes swept around the room. He did not know why, but it mattered to him how she was living. Apart from the bed against the back wall, a closed wicker basket, a small table, and the bench on which she sat, the furnishings were sparse. It seemed strange to see her without her beloved wall hangings and those other pretty worldly things that had once given her such pleasure.
She stepped closer to him, and he could see her better. She had changed since he’d last seen her. Her face was less sharp around her cheek bones, and her jaw line sagged slightly. In her once vibrant green eyes, he saw the same haunted look that his father had worn in his; the look of the guilty.
“You must be in need of refreshment, come, I have some ale here. Come sit with me and tell me your news.”
She put a hand under his elbow to guide him into the room, a touch that was light enough to shake off. She ignored the rebuff and picked up her sewing to put it on her bed, then poured the ale into two cups and sat down on her bench with her drink in her hand. She patted the space beside her, and he stared at it, thinking to himself that nothing on this earth would make him sit with her. Instead, he moved into the room, cautiously, and leant against the wall by the door. With one leg bent, and the sole of his shoe supporting him on the plaster behind, he folded his arms and stood, impassive.
“Come, my son, get your ale and come sit with me. I can order some food to be brought… if you are hungry…” Her voice was encouraging and light.
“I don’t want any ale… I don’t want any food…” He gave a slight chuckle. “I don’t know why I came.”
She was looking at him with hurt eyes and he couldn’t stand it. He unfolded his arms, dropped his leg and was about to go through the doorway when she called him, “Tovi. Please don’t go, for the good of us both, please stay.”
He felt his heart leap, though why he did not know. “Why, Mother? What good will that do me?”
She was on her feet, cup still in hand. “Why did you come all this way, if you will not speak with me?”
“I came because Freyda asked me to… I promised her… I would…”
“Then please, do not let your sister down, at least.” Her eyes looked hopeful. “Listen to what I have to say, if nothing else.”
“Listen to you? I did nothing but listen to you all my life – I listened to your lies, I kept your secret from Father, and you made me suffer for it! Yes, Mother, don’t look so surprised. What do you think that day in Winflaed’s bower did to me? I begged you not to send me away!”
“I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “I thought it best for you – you were becoming unruly, and –”
“You wanted to punish me for your sin! You wanted me to pay because I knew what you had done!”
“Aye, Mother! You knew that I never wanted to go to Waltham, but you made me go anyway.”
“All right,” she started, in a whiny voice. “I wanted to punish you – but it was not for that, it was because you nearly killed your sister.” She began to sob.
He took some steps closer to her. “No, Mother! It wasn’t because of Winflaed, was it?”
“No…Yes! I’m telling the truth.”
“It was because of your Francisc lover, wasn’t it?”
“No!” Tears streamed down her face. She struggled to speak as incoherent mumblings spilled out of her mouth.
He was eye to eye with her now, noses almost touching. “You wanted to punish me, because I knew what you had got up to in your bed those nights when Ranulf came with the Francs, and Father was away.”
“No, never – it was because of Winflaed – she could have died.”
He spoke over her as she said the words, feeling such rage. “It was because you lay with another man. Did you think I would be too young to notice? Too stupid, perhaps? Everyone thought I was stupid back then. All of you did! Father, Wulfric, Wulfwin, Freyda… Poor, stupid, stammering Tovi. Well I’m not stammering anymore, Mother, am I?”
He raised his voice over her cries of protestation. “I hope you enjoyed those nights with your lover…”
“All right! Yes… Yes… Yes – it was because of him, Thierry…” She sunk to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably, mucus mixing with her tears.
Tovi fell silent. A tear ran down his cheek. His heart was doing somersaults, and his stomach rolled as he stared down at her, wretched, like Jezebel pleading for her life. She lifted a shaking hand up to him. He wanted to lift her and calm her, fold her in his arms and tell her that he forgave her. He almost put out his hand to take hers, but was stopped by a voice in his head that told him, she despises you… she is a trickster… she wants you to forgive her, but she will never forgive you… he could not bring himself to touch her.
Instead, he said, “I hope he was worth it, Mother, because your sin has been my cross to bear. Ever since that night, I have been torturing myself that I should have done something to stop you, to save you from being unfaithful.”
“Tovi – I –”
“Oh, spare me your excuses, I don’t want to hear them. I don’t want to even look at you –”
“Forgive me, Tovi, I’m sorry… I – You’re right, I have sinned, and I made you suffer, but I –
“It’s too late, Mother. You had your chance to make amends, just now, but you justified everything you had done to me. I was just a boy! A boy, Mother – trying to help you – and Father -but instead you have thrown everything I ever did to save you back in my face.” As his words became harsher, the worse her distress. It made no difference. She had not cared how he’d felt… ever. So why should he care about her pain. “I’m going now, Mother. And I am not coming back. I don’t want to see you again – Ever!”
He turned and went through the to the hearth-room. Some of the nuns he’d encountered earlier came hurrying in, coming to her aid. He ignored their reproving looks and walked past them, listening to the hysterical cries of his mother and the nun’s soft voices as they tried to soothe her. As he walked from the guest apartments and out into the courtyard, he could still hear her cries. It was then that the floodgates opened and his tears burst from them. Tears for his younger self, penned up inside him until the moment when he could at last let them go. With them, went the burden of carrying the sins of his parents and a great weight was lifted from him. And the one thing he would remember the most from that day, was that all through his tirade and haranguing, he never once stammered.