April 3, 1203
1 ~ Marie’s Prayer
Hour of Day: Dark before Dawn
Hour of Prayer: Nocturns
I say my Prayer in silence while I draw milk from my nanny-goat’s teats.
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.
The Good Men call the prayer Lo Paire Nòstre. It is not yet mine to say aloud. The words of the prayer sprang from the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ when the multitude asked Him to teach them how to pray. His words are too holy to mingle with the breath of the unperfected, too pure for the realm of the Demon. Only the Elect may voice it. They have been made pure by the rite of Baptism of Hands. We call it the Consolamentum.
I will recite the Paire Nòstre beneath my breath sixteen times. That will make a Double. It is the only prayer the Good Men make. When I am done I will ask the Father in Heaven to grant Mamà’s graceful passage to Paradise.
As her daughter, my Inner Light obliges me to protect Mamà from the dogs of Rome. They despise our belief in two gods—The Father in Heaven and the Demon on Earth. They hunt us with spies and trap us with words and burn us alive at the stake. But our faith is stronger and truer than theirs. We men and women of the Cathar faith — the Good Men of Lenga d’Oc — are the living disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Listen to the rooster crow. He will not let up until every member of his harem lifts her tail-feathers for him. His cacaracà is sure to put an end to Mamà’s slumber.
Uh, oh. There she goes. Hear that cough? That is Mamà.
2 ~ Hearth Room
Hour of Day: Dawn
Hour of Prayer: Lauds
“Marie!” Angelique Guillamette rasped from her bed. The girl interrupted her prayer and directed her voice to the ceiling.
She turned to the goat’s ear. “We must hurry, Celie,” she whispered. “Mamà is calling. I don’t know how much longer she can breathe through that cough.”
When she had urged the last drops of milk into the earthenware crock, the girl pushed back her hair and scratched the goat’s head. “Thank you, Celie.”
The nanny bleated in reply.
The rough-hewn door to the livestock stall beneath her mother’s sleeping chamber squealed as Marie pushed it open to let the goat into the dark of the yard. To the south, in the crystalline night sky above the Pyrenees, the constellations Sagittarius, Scorpio and Libra moved slowly west as though tugging the snow-capped peaks out of the darkness and into the light.
Marie gathered the crock in the crook of her arm, and hurried to the adjoining hearth room. Sitting at the rough-hewn table board, a wrinkled old woman sopped up the last remnants of a poached egg with a crust of oat bread.
“Bonjorn, Tanta Nielda,” Marie said, as she placed the crock on the table.
The old woman lifted her head from the plate. “Your mother has been calling you,” she said while chewing.
“I know,” Marie said in a weary voice. “I’ll look in on her.”
“The cough sounds thicker today,” Tanta Nielda said between sips of parched-oat brew. “I could hear her through the walls all last night.”
“I know, I know,” Marie replied. “I pray for patience when the coughing awakens me.”
“You have been a good daughter through this ordeal, Marie.”
“She is my Mamà.”
“How does she look?”
“Wasting. I can see her ribs.”
“Oh how I would love to pay her a visit. But the dank of the air has crippled my back again.” She winced as she reached to massage the ache. “I could strangle the fool who built this place.”
Marie chuckled at her aunt’s idle grousing. “He is long dead, my dear aunt.”
“In hell, I hope.”
“Stay your curses, Tanta Nielda,” Marie scolded. “You know as well as I that the heat from the animal pen warms the bedchamber.”
“What good is a warm bedchamber if I can’t climb the stairs to see my childhood friend on her deathbed?”
“It is springtime, dear aunt. The rains are a blessing but this morning the sky is clear,” Marie said. “You will be able to see her when the days grow warmer and the sun dries the air.”
“If she lasts that long.”
Marie tipped her head and raised her brows in acknowledgment of the truth of the woman’s statement. “I will bring her a message if you like.”
“Oh no, child, no message. It’s just some sisterly gossip I need, that is all. Your mother could probably use a bit, too.”
“I am sure a dose of gossip would lift her spirits for a moment or two, but then,” the girl shrugged and dropped her hands to her sides.
“Gossip never dawdles, Marie. It comes and goes like the chirping of crickets in the walls. But if it cheers her for a moment my visit won’t be wasted.” The old woman’s eyes welled as she looked at her niece. “I long to see the face of my beloved sister-in-law and hear her voice of my dear friend, Angelique.”
Embarrassed to see her aunt on the verge of tears, Marie looked down. “I wish I could help her get well. Mustard paste and horse heal salve ease her breathing for a while, but the cough gets worse every day.”
“That is how it is with consumption, ma cara. You know that.”
“I know that far too well, dear aunt,” Marie said, slowly shaking her head in resignation. She shifted her stance and looked at her aunt with forlorn eyes. “It is just that I am weary of Death.” Her words grew bitter as she spoke. “Consumption, ague, fever, lepry, blue piss, green puke, yellow pus, bloody shit. I have known more sick people than sound ones and more who passed than survived.”
“No doubt you have seen more than your share of death than other young women of your age, child,” the old woman said in a consoling tone. “But that is in the nature of our family’s craft. The herbs you bring to the villagers make their lives better while they are alive. But in the end, there is no escaping death. After all, we are put here for no other reason than to gather grace for the liberation of our Inner Lights and to die.”
“I may be here to gather grace for my Inner Light, but I am not here to die. When death comes, I intend to be ready for it, but between now and then, I want to live.”
“That is not the way of the Good Men, Marie.”
“The Cathar way dwells on death. I want to live a graceful life, but while I am alive, I refuse to dwell on death.”
“No one is asking…”
“Marie!” came a gravelly call from above.
Marie turned abruptly to the staircase. “Coming, Mamà.” She looked at her aunt and began mounting the steps.
“I’ll tell her you miss her and kiss her for you,” she said over her shoulder.
3 ~ Dream of Death
Hour of Day: Sunrise
Hour of Prayer: Prime
The bedchamber lolled in the lingering warmth of the nightlong breath of the livestock below. Black eyes peered out from between a smothering layer of woolen blankets and the scalloped brim of the wasting woman’s sleeping-bonnet.
Marie, still seething over her tirade about sickness and death, calmed her mind and called up a morsel of grit.
“Time to freshen your breast plaster, Mamà,” she chimed.
“No more mustard paste, Marie,” the old woman said in a serene tone. “I heard Death knock on the floor three times while I slept. My end is near.” Her eyes grew bright. “Please summon the Good Men.” She coughed into her fist.
“Only the Elect,” the dying woman said. “The Parfaits. No need for the whole congregation. I will receive my final sacrament tonight.” The pallid woman spoke in a purr that betrayed the leathery skin of her wrinkled face and the impaired condition of her congested lungs.
Reluctant to accept the knock of Death as the augury of her mother’s impending demise, Marie raised her chin in feigned indifference.
“It was probably the spiced clarrey that made you dream of Death, Mamà.”
The woman pushed the covers from her chin and brushed back the brim of her bonnet, revealing the vestiges of the aquiline nose and full-bodied lips that had graced her visage when she was young.
“I did not dream it, ma cara,” Angelique insisted, almost whispering. “I heard it. Death was here, inside the floor. It knocked three times, then bellowed like a draft ox undergoing the gelding knife. It groaned my name then fled when it heard the cock crow.”
Marie forced a smile and shook her head.
“Oh Mamà, you know how dreams take on the guise of the real world in the moments before we awaken.”
“It was not a dream, Marie.” The woman’s tone became harsh. “It was not the clarrey, nor the spices in it. It was Death. It stirred me from my sleep. The omen is undeniable. My journey has begun. I must receive the Consolamentum.”
Marie stood tall.
“But Mamà, before you receive your last rites, we must be sure there is no mistake.”
“There is no mistake.”
Marie tightened her jaw.
“Once you receive the sacrament, you must fast until you pass into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“I am fully…” Angelique stopped to draw a breath… “prepared.”
“If you become well, your spirit may fall prey to the evils of the earth.”
“No recovery awaits me, child.” Angelique lost her breath and caught it again. “My journey has begun.”
Despite a growing sense of futility, Marie raced to find a convincing argument. “You know the sacrament may not be administered twice. Should you lose the grace of your Inner Light, you will be denied entry to Paradise.”
Angelique choked on her sputum. Finally, red and gasping, she glared into her daughter’s eye, “How dare you lecture me. It is you, not I, who are in need of lecturing.”
Marie’s lip quivered. “Oh Mamà…”
“Marie, you are my only daughter,” Angelique said in a deliberate tone. “It is your sacred duty to summon the Good Men and arrange my final sacrament.” She paused to freshen her wind. “Or,” she said, drawing out the word in an accusatory tenor, “must I leave my deathbed to summon the Parfaits myself?”
Standing with her hands at her side, her usually square shoulders sagging under the shame of the scolding, Marie looked at the floor.
“No, Mamà, I will summon them.”
Marie raised her head, steadied her chin and spoke with insistence. “But I will not hasten your passage. You must eat until you receive the Consolamentum and begin the Endura.”
Marie waited in silence for her mother to object. Receiving no response, she nodded once in affirmation of her assertion.
“May I make your breakfast?”
The old woman gave an uncaring nod. A coughing fit seized her. She reached for a spittle cup on the nightstand.
“I’ll get that for you, Mamà.”
“Mercés, ma cara.” Angelique took a short breath and expectorated into the cup.
“I have a loaf of pan bread on the hearth. Would you like a piece for breakfast?”
The old woman nodded
“A cup of wine? Clarrey?”
Nodding, yes, Angelique coughed into her knuckles and extended three fingers. “Three fingers of wine,” she wheezed. She paused to catch her breath, “and add… a pinch of angelica and two of lovage.”
“Of course, Mamà,” Marie said, barely concealing her annoyance at her mother’s gratuitous instructions for preparing the elixir she gave her each morning.
“When seeking out the Parfaits, remember to speak with discretion. When in the company of others use only signs and whispers.”
Marie drew back her neck in indignation. “Of course, Mamà. I am not a child. I know how to address the Good Men in public.”
The girl looked at the cloudy light of the oiled parchment window and drew two deep breaths to regain her composure, then returned her attention to the business of the day. After primping the blanket, she gave her mother a peck on the forehead and turned about to make for the stairs. Recalling her promise to Tanta Nielda, she turned back and kissed her mother on the cheek.
“From Tanta Nielda,” she whispered while stroking her mother’s brow. “She misses you.”
The old woman smiled.
Bathed in a sense of contentment, Marie lifted the hem of her tunic and clopped down the steps as quickly as her wooden soled sandals would allow. As she reached the earthen floor, the aroma of baking oat and lentil bread arose from the cast iron pan she had buried in the coals of the hearth.
“So?” Tanta Nielda inquired.
“She wants the Baptism of Hands.” Marie replied as she strode to the fire.
“The Consolamentum, hum? Is it time?”
“She heard the knock of Death in the floor,” Marie said, as she knelt before the hearth.
“Then she is ready,” Tanta Nielda said.
“I must go to the village to alert the Good Men,” Marie said. She turned her face from the heat and swept the glowing embers from the lid of the pan with the poker.
“Do it after you deliver the herbs. That way you won’t raise suspicion,” Tanta Nielda said.
Marie grasped the wooden grip of the long panhandle with both hands, and swung the bread onto the table. “Nobody cares about the last rites of an old Cathar woman,” she answered.
“Do not take the kindness of our Catholic neighbors for granted, child.” Tanta Nielda cautioned. “The rite of the Endura is forbidden by the Church of Rome. It is a simple matter to dissolve a midnight convocation if we suspect betrayal by an interloper. Not so simple to conceal the starvation of a newly perfected Parfait on her deathbed. A single word to the Roman clergy about your mother’s parting sacrament would be sufficient to bring mayhem to this village.”
“I cannot imagine one of our…”
“All I am saying is do not let summoning the Parfaits be your only purpose in the village today.”
“Well, Carole Marti needs a fresh supply of rue.” Marie paused to find other reasons to go to the village. “And I have to buy fish for the sacramental supper.”
“Yes. Good. Of course. Bring the rue to Carole, and buy the fish.” The old woman ran two fingers across her lower lip. “And fetch a jug of water from the fountain.” She stared absently at the dwindling fire in the hearth. “But you will still need a reason to visit Alyces and Arnaud to tell them to come tonight,” she muttered under her breath. She shifted her gaze twice from the hearth to Marie and nodded with certainty. “Ask for a cup of stale ram piss.”
“Stale ram piss?” Marie said, squinting one eye in perplexity. “I thought the fullers used human piss for bleaching wool.”
“They do, but Arnaud also uses the piss of his rams to entice his ewes to stand for the studs of his choosing.”
Marie raised her brows and nodded slowly, as though she understood her aunt’s request, then twisted her face in chagrin.
“We have a nanny goat, three hens, a rooster and a pig, so why am I asking for a cup of stale…”
Tanta Nielda cut the girl off.
“A pessary. I’m making a pessary.”
“Mamà makes pessaries and she has never asked me…”
“It’s for Elise Lutant. She bleeds from oil of cedar and boiled rue makes her puke. I had to devise a new formula.”
“I thought the formulas were ancient.”
“They are. But when a woman cannot abide the traditional recipe, it is ours to devise a new one.”
“How do you know where to begin devising a new recipe for a pessary?”
A smirk stole onto the old woman’s face. “I began learning the secrets of the estral herbs long ago, ma cara. When I was just about your age. By now the herbs speak to me in their own secret language. Your time to take on the secrets cannot be far off.”
“I know. I know,” Marie muttered in dread. “Mamà has been hounding me about learning the craft since my first cycle.”
Tanta Nielda spoke with tenderness. “She is not hounding you, Marie. She simply understands the importance of the herbs and wants to pass the secrets on to you.”
“I know,” Marie said. “But for now I have to arrange her passage.”
“Of course you do. But once your mother is gone, your initiation will become urgent. Only I will be left to instruct you. After all, how much longer can I have until I make my own passage to Paradise?”
Faint wrinkles crept into the corners of Marie’s eyes. “There’s so much to learn. I do not know how you and Mamà remember all the herbs and potions and doses. I know the most common ones from carrying them to the village. But just from hearing you and Mamà talk about them, I know there are uncountable others.”
“You know more than you think, Marie. All the same, today is not the day to begin your education. Do what you must. Summon the Parfaits. When your Mamà has made her passage, you and I will begin your introduction to the secrets of the estral herbs.”
“I have avoided the task until now, but I will put my mind to it. I promise,” Marie said, nodding with resolve.
“For now, bring this to Brigitte Fanteaux.” The old woman reached into her apron pocket and withdrew a wrinkled woolen pad the size and shape of a dried plum. She held it by a green ribbon sewn into one edge.
“She came to you for a pessary? She could have asked me when I was about the village. I see her all the time meandering about the cobbler’s shop.”
“She is faithful to the Church of Rome, Marie. She doesn’t want to raise suspicion that she’s controlling her cycle.”
Marie threw back her head with a derisive chuckle. “As though every woman in Lenga d’Oc doesn’t control her cycle when she needs to.”
Tanta Nielda took on an instructive tone. “Just because the Roman clergy turns a blind eye to women taking control of their bodies doesn’t mean their abeyance should be flaunted, child. The use of such devices is forbidden by Rome. And blind eyes or not, there is always the chance that the dogs will awaken. And so, it behooves us to let them sleep undisturbed.”
Tanta Nielda paused in contemplation while massaging her crooked knuckles.
“Besides, people are not inclined to talk about such things,” the old woman continued. “Much the way what happens under the covers or in the privy, what goes on inside a woman’s vulve is for her to contend with in her own way.”
“I don’t suppose a dose of caution can do any harm,” Marie returned. “But why now? Brigitte has never used any of the estral herbs before. Not that I brought to her.”
“She says her monthly blood has returned,” Tanta Nielda said while massaging her temple. “The barrenness of suckling her boy child has worn off. The tyke is at two years, so she has enjoyed the luxury of childlessness for longer than most. She has borne seven and lost two to the croup. That’s enough for the family of a cobbler, she says.”
“The usual price I suppose?”
Tanta Nielda nodded. “One denier. And since this is Brigitte’s first time, be sure to tell her not to wait to put it in.” She raised her left hand and made a tunnel with her barely clenched fist. “Tell her to insert it all the way to the top of her womb before Emile touches her,” she continued as she inserted the pessary into the orifice made by her thumb and first finger. “Before she is wet.”
With the first two fingers of her other hand, the older woman pushed the contraceptive pad though the hole and out the top of her hand-made womb, wiggling the pessary as it protruded out the top of her fist. She opened her hands and, taking the pessary by its lanyard, ran her finger along the cord as she spoke. “Tell her to tie it to her thigh for safe keeping.”
She stopped as though finished, then raised her hand toward the ceiling for emphasis. “Most of all, make sure you tell her that it’s important to reach in and spread it over the top of her vulve,”
She made the finger cup again and inserted her fingers through the hole and out the top.
“Where he plants his seed. Leave it in all night, until his seed is gone. Remove it only in the morning, when she awakens. She says he is as horny as a two-year-old ram in flock of yearling ewes. He has to spend twice before he falls off to sleep,” the old woman said with a lascivious grin.
Marie chuckled at her aunt’s ribald banter. “Sounds like fortune has smiled upon her.”
“I have no doubt her minon smiles in return,” Tanta Nielda japed.
The pair burst into a fit of laughter that was broken by the sound of coughing from Angelique’s sleeping chamber.
Stifling her glee, Marie’s mouth fell open as her eyes snapped wide. “I must prepare to depart.”
Tanta Nielda pressed her palms to the table, raised her elbows to gather strength, and pushed her way to standing.
“And I must get back to my spinning and prayers. The Lord be with you, ma cara,” the old woman said as she passed through the door to the adjoining hovel that served as her private domus.
“And with your spirit. Mercés, Tanta Nielda,” Marie said, thanking her aunt.
“Amb plaser,” the old woman replied.