The Medieval anchoress would often be laid on a funeral bier and given last rites before being carried to her anchorhold, the small cell in which she’d be entombed for the rest of her days. The ceremony represented her commitment to die to the world and live for Christ. Some anchorholds contained the anchoress’s open grave as a memento mori, or reminder of death. No longer a participant in the affairs of men, she became an observer, viewing the world through a small window in her cell wall. The symbolic death of self–one’s desires, biases and agendas–is the only path to true objectivity.
From draft one of She Watches – An Anchoress Perspective
by Abby Travers
Tuesday, March 13th: 11:45 PM
The snap of branches, a wet thud, and a strangled wheeze woke Abby. The sounds weren’t loud, but she’d only been in a half-sleep. She slipped out of her bedroll, crossed the dirt floor to the squint her father had made for her and peered out.
Her view was limited. To the right, she could see as far as the public restrooms, to the left, the spot where the path that led to the cemetery and Father Serra Chapel disappeared around a bend. There was a grassy area directly in front of her on the other side of that same path, beyond that was a barrier of shrubbery, and finally, the concrete wall that separated the San Juan Capistrano Mission grounds from the city outside. This had been her only vista for the past twenty-one days.
As she stared into the night, she saw a pair of booted feet move through the bushes, followed by a pair of sneakers. “This is stupid,” a hushed voice, young and male, said. His head and torso were invisible to Abby, hidden behind foliage.
“Shut up. Do as you’re told.” The older man had a deep voice and an accent she couldn’t place.
There was more rustling of brush and the two men, the crescent of a body dangling between them, emerged from the bushes. Their faces were masked by shadows, but their builds were so similar she guessed they were father and son—-the heavier man a preview of what the younger would become in time.
They side-stepped to the open area. A whine of air, like the exhalation of a balloon, came from the form as they laid it on the grass. Without another word, the men turned to the wall they’d just climbed. Before they disappeared into the shrubbery again, the younger of the two looked over his shoulder. For a brief moment half his face was illuminated by the moonlight. His dark eyes and high cheekbones wore an expression Abby couldn’t read. It might as easily have been annoyance as regret. Then the men were gone.
The person, if it was a person–it could have been a large dog, she hadn’t gotten a good look–lay unmoving where they’d left it. Her heart thudded in her chest. What should she do?
Abby couldn’t leave her cell. Not without help. Her father had wanted to give her an escape hatch, but she’d said no. The experience had to be as realistic as possible. If she could come and go whenever she wanted, it would defeat the whole purpose. But she’d never imagined something like this would happen.
Guilt and anxiety itched like a hair shirt. What on earth had possessed her to take six weeks off work to lock herself in these four walls? She pushed herself off the stones, walked five steps to the other end of her enclosure, pivoted, and took five steps back. Repeat. Repeat.
It had to be a dog.
People wouldn’t toss another human being over a wall like a pile of trash. A dog was bad. No, it was terrible. But, a person…
She peered out of her tiny window at the black bundle on the grass. The moon was almost full, but the shape was blanketed in shadow, impossible to decipher. She didn’t think it was breathing, couldn’t detect any rise or fall. She’d heard that whine when the men laid it down, but didn’t bodies emit gasses and noises after death? She was sure she’d read that somewhere.
The longer she stared, the more it looked like a dog. Maybe it was a trick of her eyes, but after a while she thought she saw its tail trailing out into the moonlight.
On the outside chance it was alive and might be comforted by her voice, she began to sing. She’d learned the old hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee” from her Lutheran grandmother. “Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down. Darkness be over me, my rest a stone. Yet in my–“
A wail, hollow and otherworldly, shattered the night.
Horror tripped up Abby’s spine like an electric shock. She flew to the squint. The black form, now on its side, bore an unmistakably female shape. “God. God. God.” The prayer escaped her lips. The woman outside, her voice pained and pleading, uttered words in a strange language. “I don’t understand you. I’m so sorry, I don’t understand.” Despair flooded Abby’s veins.
She ran to the one loose stone near the floor of her small cell and slid it from the wall. A soft breeze brushed her face. The opening was too small for her to squeeze through, but maybe she could enlarge it. She gripped the stone above the space and pulled with all her strength. It didn’t budge. She planted her feet on either side of it, held on with both hands and put her legs and back into the effort. On the day she entered the anchorhold, her father had cemented this stone in place behind her. She knew she could fit through the opening if she could remove it.
She struggled and strained for long minutes. Nothing shifted.
She wiped at the sweat rolling down her forehead and looked frantically around her enclosure for a tool, something she could use as a crowbar. Her bed was only a roll of foam laid on the floor with a few blankets on top. No help. A stump of a candle, a book, and a pack of matches lay on the floor next to it.
Her gaze flitted to the camp chair on the other wall. Its legs were aluminum–the only metal she’d brought with her. She tore off the canvas seat, placed one of the leg joints across her knee and leaned her body weight into it. She heard a satisfying pop, but all she’d managed to do was bend the leg at an odd angle.
Still, it might work. She dragged the chair to the wall, and struck the cement with the misshapen leg. It bounced away with a hollow ping. She struck it again and again, but only managed to chip away a tiny piece of concrete. This would take all night and half the next day. The woman would be found long before Abby managed to escape.
She ran to the squint to check on her.
Labored pants filled her ears. Abby gripped her hair and squeezed her eyes shut. Think. Think. What could she do? She had no phone. It was the middle of the night, if she called out for help, no one would hear.
She threw herself against the iron bars of the squint in frustration. It was a useless gesture. Even if she could remove them, she’d never fit through the opening. “Please, I can’t come out. I’m trying, but I can’t.” She heard the tears in her own voice.
Anguished moans were the only reply. The woman didn’t understand Abby’s words any more than Abby understood hers. Abby slid down the wall and sat on the cold dirt. She hugged herself with both arms and rocked as if she could comfort the stranger on the grass by proxy and began to pray.
As minutes became hours, her prayers for human help became prayers for the ease of pain. As the moans became less frequent and more hushed, she prayed for the woman’s acceptance into God’s loving arms.
Abby wanted to watch, to keep a vigil. It was the least she could do. The only thing she could do. But emotion had exhausted her, and she dozed.
When she woke, black night had turned to gray morning. She stood, her body stiff and aching. She knew she should look out, check on the woman, but she was afraid she’d be dead.
She dragged herself to the squint and peered through the bars. The form on the grass was young; a girl not a woman. She was younger than Abby’s twenty-eight years, but her face had been aged by illness, or neglect, or both. Her eyes were red hollows. Despite the bloodless pallor of her skin, Abby could tell her complexion had once been olive.
She was slight, thin to the point of emaciation. Knots of elbows and bony forearms protruded from the tattered sleeves of a threadbare blouse. The only thing of beauty Abby saw was what she’d assumed to be a dog’s tail the night before. A ponytail of shining black hair spread out behind the young woman, hinting at what she’d looked like in health.
There was no breath. No movement. And something in the way the body lay, told Abby it was empty. As if to prove the point, a squirrel scurried over and sniffed an outstretched hand. Moments later a scrub jay landed only feet away and searched the grass for its morning meal, unruffled by any human presence. The girl was gone. Abby sank to the floor of her cell and let grief wash over her.