I have followed what footprints you have left for four years. Sometimes I felt myself connected to you, as though I could sense your presence in those distant places, far from what either of us might call home. Sometimes I felt lost and alone, awed by the vastness of the world and the smallness of us, its occupants, in it. My search has taken me as far as the Holy Land, beyond even Constantinople, of which I spoke to you long ago. I went to Jerusalem, sought out the Temple and stood before it, but God did not speak to me there. He would not tell me. No matter my prayers and promises, He does not bargain, at least not with me.
Now that I have found your trail once again, I reflect again on the moment when I told you, “Hide where not even I would think to look for you.” What a foolish thing to say to someone of your cast of mind! And, if I am right, your solution to that challenge was close to perfection. And it must have been torture for you.
I have arrived at Rome. Of all the places I have been, it is the one city where I could remain forever. The strength of will that you have shown to be here, to be what you have become, is far past my comprehension. If it is, as you once said to me, “Better to die for truth than live in falsehood,” I can only hope that you have faced this punishment with equanimity. I hope too that you have found consolation in the peace of your cloister.
God cast me from Him before I ever knew you, but I never quite forgot Him. Even now, when I stand in His house, I am humble, penitent. My last true confession was more than ten years ago, after I killed a man. The priest absolved me, but my guilt did not diminish. Even the sure knowledge that he would have killed me without any remorse did not make his dead eyes stop looking at me.
By God, Santa Maria is beautiful. I sat in the Carafa chapel, looking at Filippino Lippi's frescos, waiting for the Abbess. How I envy those for whom the religious life is satisfying. I cannot imagine that you have adapted to that life, but there was a dreadful fear in me that you would see me and tell me to go home, to leave you to your vows. First, I needed my answer: had I finally got it right?
“An Englishwoman?” she says, in an accent that I cannot place. “Yes. If that is all you wish to know, you may leave us now. She is safe.”
“I wish to see her,” I say, reluctant to look this abbess in the eye, as though her vows mean that I should not look upon her earthly body. That feeling of proscription is doubled by the aim of my coming here, to bring you away from God and back to me. Providence is on my side, as she is unprepossessing, plain and old under her hood, I see her as a woman, not a woman of God, and somehow I feel I can hold her gaze as long as I wish.
“If it is,” she says, “to confirm her identity, then that may be done without your meeting. If it is to encourage her to break her vows to God, then I forbid it.”
“Tell her I am here. If it is truly her, she will see me. Not even God may deny her that.”
“You are not speaking to God, Sir. You are speaking to me, and in my convent, I may permit or deny as I see fit.” She looks at me, and I can feel that in that moment she is deciding whether to indulge me or to send me away. I am no charmer, able to sway people with a smile or a well-chosen word. Indeed, it is more common for me to bring out anger. So I say nothing, but try to clear my mind of all but you and everything that we said and did before you went away, in the hope that God might, for once, intervene on my behalf.
She points a finger at me, accusatory. “To break her vows... I should not have let her take them.”
“She is not hidden in here because of forbidden love,” I say, the words out before I recognise what I am saying. Calmer, I carry on. “She is hiding from the world.”
“She has told me a little. The world thinks her dead.”
“And so it shall remain. She had already devoted herself to God, more than even the most devout of your nuns. But this is where she was best hidden.”
The abbess stands, and lays a hand on my shoulder. “God's love is great, my boy. But her's for you...” She leads me into the main body of the church, past Michaelangelo's Christ, and bids me be seated. She leaves me alone.
Then the world stops. Time ceases its flow. You are here.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought