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It is Sunday and you are five. Your great hope is to get down to the river unnoticed during church. You make it back to the barn without getting caught, through the wood and to the bank where you must urge him past his doubts. He dips his head and you feel the thrill of his body, and yours, dropping down into the water. The current grabs you both, carrying you out into the river’s heart. You swing out, the pony’s legs churning the water beneath you. You could reach his ears now but you can’t let go of his mane. Sunlight on the river is brilliant — blinding. The water soothes your scratched legs. You watch the shadows to know the time and dry out on the race home. You almost slot yourself back into the family returning from mass, the pony left in the field with the men scything hay, but your sister Gytha rumbles you and drags you before your mother. Your mother snorts and grumbles as she hacks burrs from your hair with a knife and her bone-handled brush. You are made to wear a dress but this time it is beautifully soft against your hot skin.
All through the meal that follows your father says nothing. Then a sudden clearing of his throat and an announcement. The one you’ve been dreading since you understood a girl’s future was not the same as her brothers. You and Gytha look at each other. Gytha will stay in Wessex until a suitably advantageous match can be arranged. You, Gunhild, are being sent to a nunnery. You meet Gytha’s eye jubilantly: better a nun than spitting out babies year after year. Your father leaves. It is your mother who explains you will travel without your father. Alone.
Next morning, at your departure, your father tells you, his voice making your throat ache, that one day you will be Abbess of Wilton. You could cry. It would be a relief as you ride out. But the Godwinsons do not cry.
At ten, your father becomes King of England. You picture the crown, imagine the weight of it on his head. Harold’s face has grown blurred in your mind, but asleep, you know that shaky presence in your dreams is him. King of England. It takes some getting used to. There is no one better or braver. He is rich, definitely. But there will always be talk when a man gets more than he was born to. A man in an unseemly hurry, some say, crowning himself on the same day, in the same church, as the old king’s burial. Why waste flowers? You smile at your father’s voice inside your head. Besides, you agree with him.
You are incapable, you believe, of being shocked by your family. But then your father’s first action, with the crown on his head, sets aside your mother, his hand-fast wife, in favour of a new one. A Mercian. Since Mercia is what he needs now; and whom he bribed to gain a kingdom —among others. A less Danish wife, since Danes fell out of fashion with Cnut. You know she is far from being the first wife to be cast aside.
Among the nuns, this exchange of queens is all the talk. The sisters know men and their wants. Here at Wilton the canon has two wives, the chaplains one each, always with an eye out for additions. Keeping wives is a sign of stature. The more men have, the richer they must be. Clergy keep concubines and sire children; how else could they pass on an abbey to a son? Even the nuns, at times, and with varying degrees of willingness, have babies.
It is Friday, meaning the abbess has hired horses and gone visiting. At supper, there is a rare flurry of talk about your infamous uncle. Did you know him, the nuns ask? You have to admit that you do not. This loosens their mouths still further. Over dry cheese and bone soup, they chew the fat of his abduction of an Abbess some fifteen years earlier, and how he lived with her as his wife for twelve months. Your face aches from astonishment. What happened to her, you ask the nuns, and they shrug. The Archbishop of Canterbury pressed him to give her up, and purified her again on her return. It is clear they believe the matter is finished and turn back to their soup. But you draw from your memory the verb, in Anglo-Saxon, to remake a virgin. Surely a miracle. You think on it later when you should be fetching and carrying for sister Aethgar. How is a woman made pure, you wonder. Did it hurt? Did she wail like a woman giving birth, like your mother? If you were abducted like that, would you want to be turned back into what you were?
In April, just after your eleventh birthday, you watch a comet hang in the sky week after week. The nuns are uneasy, the rooks restless in the woods. The ewes’ milk sours and food tastes burned even when it’s raw. Two ancient manuscripts are eaten by silver fish overnight. You take woodruff before you sleep, as though you ailed. But then you find clarity: either you believe that women hold their fate in their own hands, or you submit to the doom of comets and prophecies. You look at your palms, small and red; you press and knead them against stone walls of Wilton. Trust them, they seem to tell you. So you do.
Without the comet, life returns to dullness. You feel sewn up; a coin hemmed into the lining of a cloak for safekeeping. You escape to the river over a long hot summer. Swimming is strictly forbidden. You flee in the half-light of dawn and dusk, returning with the scent of river-water on your skin, which you lick to rekindle the sweetness of swimming. Of suspension. You are filled with a nameless longing. The first time you get caught, you give yourself away by smelling too clean. Punishment is confinement to the dormitory, the refectory and the library, in the hope you will learn your limits. Instead, you read about the world of the past and the places beyond your horizon. You float there in your dreams.
You wake up with a loose tooth and the taste of blood on your tongue. You suck the iron. Any flavour is important when most meals are bone soup. In the refractory, there is talk of a battle. Of two words, Stamford Bridge. Days later, word of a second battle reaches Wilton. Hastings. Here your father is killed. Singled out on the battlefield and run through. Cut down. Cut out of the future of England. In the flurry your mother vanishes and from her disappearance, you learn that sometimes to stay alive you must be lost. Stories drip and drip through windows and down chimneys. Your brothers are scattered. Your sister Gytha flees abroad to find a husband. Your father’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine die alongside your father, your uncle Tostig, fighting. Something in your body wants to break.
But you adapt. Young and supple as you are, you can change, you must, because you want to experience a world only glimpsed in books. You have grown a hand’s span in your father’s narrow reign. In your dreams you are swimming in a vast ocean. You wake sticky and salty-eyed. To get out of bed, you have to shake yourself good and hard.
As the days and weeks pass, no matter how hard you try, you cannot picture your Tostig the traitor, or Leofwine, or even your father. But you can recall the scars on your Uncle Gyrth’s cheek and neck, and you cannot smell honey without thinking of him at his mead. Of your mother, you have her green eyes, and the same Danish curve to your forehead, a remarkable nimbleness of foot, and a love of swimming in rivers. But other than what you carry in your body, you have nothing left of your mother. Certainly, no word. If she is alive, it seems she recommends you forget her. Which of course you cannot.
The woman your father married after setting aside your mother is said to have fled to Chester with her baby, Harold. Even at your age, you understand instinctively, that little will be known of this new Harold. Son of a dead king, of a defeated royal line, he must keep his head down or lose it entirely.
That winter there is dysentery in the village. The river freezes. The air hurts to breathe. Crops will be set back and you have chilblains on both hands and your feet that make walking or even turning a page painful. You have long nights without a candle to lie and think. To accept what you know many cannot. A new order. A new language. A new king.
The abbess sends for you to discuss your future, knowing a thing or two about changed fate, being herself descended from a different line of royalty, now defunct. You know what she will tell you: you can never be abbess. But neither can you leave, or marry, since who would align themselves with the Godwinsons now? Your body feels loose, free, as when you leap headlong in cold water. In the still chill wind, your uncle Tostig’s face comes to you suddenly clear, his head and shoulders, a good deal smaller than your own father, and you hear the way he barked when he laughed, the way he slapped the table when he was happy. His favourite horn, you recall too. Suddenly you wonder what happened to that horn — to all the favourite things of the dead. You must start imagining them in the hands of strangers like everything else.
The abbess has toothache. The right side of her face is badly swollen up to the eye and she talks out of the left side of her mouth. You wonder about the timing. Whether she’s waited to speak to you until she is roaring with pain, or if her pain has made her think on you more kindly. You stand on the spot she points to.
Gunhild, she says, you know why I have called you here.
I know your father hoped, expected, that you would become Abbess after me in time. And you would have been, she says.
But my father died. —You say for her, meaning it as a kindness, since who would want to say these words —And now it is impossible.
The abbess makes the sign of the cross to dismiss you, relieved saying, God has other plans for you, daughter of Christ.
You think, as you leave, that you won’t leave something so important to God.
You think of Gytha traveling around Europe to find a husband and envy someone for the first time in your life. What has she glimpsed in her wandering? Here, you are now subject to the quirks of the nuns and abbess, the canons and bishops. You chafe at their rules. Why walk your life in straight lines when you long to circle and loop?
The bell calls the nuns to prayer. You walk flagrantly towards the woods. Let them call you back. Word will have spread. You hold yourself as though the old props of wealth and future are still there.
Hoar frost reddens your nose. The tips of your fingers throb. You hug yourself, hands on your ribs, feeling the movement of muscle between bone. For a few moments you are not a king’s daughter. You are an orphan wandering in the woods alone. You start to run, ducking branches and feeling the crack of twigs beneath your feet. The air burns your chest. At the runic cross, you turn towards the river. At the first glimpse through the trees, black water, white snow, your body feels different. Reclaimed. As abbess, you might have left some trace of yourself, but since your father’s death, even as the daughter of a king you have moved beyond the reach of history. To be known is to leave footprints. You plan to soar so high you’ll leave none. This thought becomes a hum at the back of your mouth. You start to sing, tunelessly, for you have no ear. The feeling vibrates in your chest and ribs. It is telling you something about what matters in life: to live, when so many don’t. Entering the abbey through the east door, you meet the cautious gaze of the pupils. Let them look. It is not in your blood to be ordinary, but you know, in this company, in a matter of moments you will be invisible again.
For the next ten years of your life, you remain an oblate, as one by one your fellow pupils take orders. Your dreams at night are of being caught in a hessian sack. Someone has tied you inside. Every time you are asked to take orders you meet the abbess’s words with a shake of your head. This life is not to be yours. You are not waiting for God’s plans to fall into place. You are always thinking of ways to lift a foot from the traces. To swim free in white water. Secretly, you find yourself drawn to the Gods of your mother, your grandmother, who seem better suited to a world of such flux. You need a way out. You consider your talents. Are they enough? You embroider and weave, though not skilfully enough to be known or kept by it. You know a little of plants and healing, but only common women heal. You speak French and have a womb, both of which fit you for one thing. And yet, dead king’s daughter, without wealth and dispossessed of lands, what have you to offer a husband?
You are past your prime when the soldiers come to the gates of Wilton. You offer the abbess, who ails, to go meet them in her stead. The nuns hide, for Norman lust is widely feared and abductions are common, but you feel shielded by your habit and the years of religious life.
The leader has dismounted and already wormed his way in. You try to cut him off in the cloisters, ready for battle. You find him looking down at his feet, standing beside a pillar as though he needs its bulk for strength. His shaved head, in the Norman style, shows the whiteness of his scalp. To witness such foreignness on Abbey soil shocks you. His face remains hidden, but then you see the embroidery of his tunic. Such beautiful needlework. You are caught in the story of whose hands worked it, and what she meant to him, if anything.
He catches your eye, his gaze firm and unblinking. Not for him the sly glance of a monk or a bishop. He greets you as though he has an appointment with you at this precise date and time. You grip your fate with both hands, intent on reeling him in.
I am Gunhild of Wessex, you say, daughter of—
He stops you, in French. Breton French. Your own is so fluent you almost don’t notice, thanks to Aunt Edith and her insistence you learn.
He looks at you as though he truly sees you and says, I know whose daughter you are.
Is he here to take you? In truth, you really didn’t believe it would happen to you. It leaves you without fear, puzzled almost. You tilt your head.
You know me, you say, yet I know nothing of you.
He bows. Chivalry is all the rage at court, you hear. A new idea of what it means to be a man, lately emigrated from Normandy, at least a man outside of battle. Since men at war clearly behave as brutally as they choose. Well, all praise to God that you are Saxon and a woman and not bound to such charters of how to be. Though what has God to do with your path now? Let this chivalrous fool know you do not fear him. Thief that he is; pillager and mercenary, a man whose service to the bastard William was paid for in your mother’s hides; Henchman to the conqueror. He, of all people, is to be your way out.
I am here on the abbess’s behalf, you say. You should have sent word. What do you want here? A group of armed men among women of God.
Women of God! He scoffs. Not you. Not yet.
You are astonished. How can he know, meeting you by chance as he does, seeing you in religious dress, that you have resisted taking orders?
I am married already, you reply. To Christ—
He shrugs. I am not offering to marry you.
So, there it is. He is here for you but not as his wife. He who has already taken your land and dowry. This is all the opportunity you can expect. You take it.
Good! you tell him. Because in marriage, I would have been beyond your reach.
At last, he smiles. Ah yes, he replies. A king’s daughter.
But a dead king.
You, with your perfect Breton French, stand holding out your hand for his. As he takes it, you feel the dry skin, the knotted scar across the palm: this is your path now.
As the weeks and months go by, you have to shake yourself, daily, at what you have done. Your senses feel released from layers of padding. You hear the wing beat of bees. Smell running water through dense woods several furlongs away. Feel the beat of your heart in your ears, the ridges of the pallet on which you sleep, dog hair on the floor among the rushes, for Alan the Red likes wolfhounds.
You have no model for living as a wife. Though you are no wife, not in the eyes of the church, or the king. You are, ironically, as your mother was, a concubine. Wif, in Anglo Saxon, is much kinder than the equivalent word in French, meaning woman who sleeps with man, married or no. Your life together is all movement. Estate to estate. Bedding down and waking and wondering where you are.
Then, quite unexpectedly, there is a baby. Never have you occupied your body so absolutely, felt your skin so tender. Your feet swell, your wrists; your face becomes spherical like a scarecrow. You see your veins through your skin like a map of your future. So many branches to choose from, you feel giddy. And when the birth near splits you in two, and the mess and the pain, there is your daughter, the fuss of her hair, the tug of her hands, her mouth, clamped to your breast. Such peace. A tiny pearl of concentration sucking a hole in your heart. You feel wonder in every glance at her, sleeping, so often sleeping, and then furiously awake. When the weight of her slowly doubles in your arms, your fear rises up. She is all Godwinson, gold-haired, sharp-eyed. And her laugh, when it finally arrives one day, is pure Gytha. You have to protect her. Your brothers are abroad, your father dead, and her father cannot claim her. To do so requires the agreement of the king. You might as well light a beacon: look here, a child of royal blood!
You name her, on condition the name is Norman. You choose Matilda, after The Conqueror’s queen. There must be swathes of Matildas, you reason. Let your child sink tracelessly amongst her peers inside the shadow of a Norman.
Your lives shrink. You stick with Matilda while Alan darts back and forth without you, banqueting and feeding the king, with venison and bottomless barrels of mead and ale. At home life is quiet with only one interruption, your husband’s brother and heir, Alan the Black.
Your world is lilac sunsets and misty moons. You take your daughter by the hand, barefoot over the shingle, and hold her by the belly while she floats in the shallows. In deeper water she opens her eyes under water by instinct, just as you did. What do you see? you ask her. Your eyes are not what they were, but she does not know that. Your world grows tunnel-shaped, narrow and blurred. Except your daughter’s face, which you know by touch, like a path you can navigate on moonless nights. You build no castles, no churches, you gift no land to God. Black Alan is fond of children— particularly children that are not his own — and Matilda makes him laugh. She has inherited your mother’s swift tongue, your aunt’s keen eye, your father’s blithe bullishness.
Early one winter morning, when Matilda is twelve, you wake alone. The place beside you in bed is cold, the fire burned down. Gritting your teeth against the chill of the flagstones you stand, stiff-limbed, to stoke the embers, and trip over what you cannot see. You squat and see with your hands. It is Alan Rufus, your almost husband, fallen in the night. He must have woken while you slept. Did he call out to you? The thought tortures you. His cheek is cold to touch, and you know how his eyes will look, from the infirmary at Wilton: his soul is gone. You sit on the floor and hold his face, to remember its every fold and crease while you have the chance.
Before he can be buried in the frozen earth, you follow your mother’s example and vanish. You will not allow Matilda to be found. You take her to Wilton where she will grow up as you did, pupil to the nuns. Your eyes fail, from grief perhaps. Sightlessness is one more ablation. You see with your eyes closed, memories from childhood, you hear the lap of the river, the squelch of mud sucking your feet as you wade in. You ride in your dreams. You smell the sweat of horses. It brings tears to your eyes. You are translucent as water, inside and out.
When you are settled at Wilton, a stranger brings a letter from your dead husband. You check the seal with your fingers. It is real. You ask your daughter to describe the messenger. Simple, she says, ordinary. His name is Walter, tenant of a tenant of the king. A man, in the old world, far beneath the Godwinsons. This man, the letter tells you, is sent for our daughter.
You speak to the ghost of your mother. How differently you think now of sending child a way. Of what it costs. But your Matilda must go, must marry this obscure man. She must vanish. The loss of her cuts deeper than the loss of your sight. But you know, you know, this is the only way she can stay safe.
You become so ghostly within the year; it surprises you whenever you are noticed. One silvery morning in winter the Abbess presents you with two letters from Bishop Anselm, addressed to you as daughter of a king, highlighting that you are far from being as invisible as you imagined. Suddenly you have an image of Matilda, as a small child, covering her face, playing the game of peekaboo, when she used to forget you were there with her eyes covered. Is this how you’ve been? You take heart. The letter does not mention your now married daughter but states simply that you were abducted, that you remained with your abductor and were happy. The fact that many Saxon men and women have done no worse remains unacknowledged. The letter’s end astonishes you: a flat denial of permission for you to marry your abductor’s heir, Alan the Black. You laugh aloud, bringing sister Godgifu running. She thinks you are choking. But she helps you burn the letters.
So, you realise, to protect your daughter’s life, you need to truly vanish. From Wilton. From class and kin. Become the water you love, always moving, always changing, to protect your daughter’s future. Only obscurity will prevent her becoming a banner, a rallying point for the Saxon cause or the schemes of men. Let her slip through the sieve of history. You visit the abbess late at night, a parcel for the road in your arms, a handful of coins sewn into your clothes to weigh you down, for you are slight as a leaf on the wind. You will meander east, flow and eddy, back towards the lands of your mother and your daughter.
And what of Alan the Black?
When you die, there is no name on your tombstone. Nothing but the dates and a simple quote in Latin you chose yourself. Your daughter has a daughter now, and a son. History, you are determined, will not know them. When we come to look for you, in the chronicles, the daughter of a king, there will be almost nothing to find, and every scrap disputed. Gytha? Now she birthed a dynasty, but yet remains a footnote. You? You are nowhere. Just as you chose.