‘”Thou Shalt Not!” soon fades,’the Storyteller* said. ‘But “Once Upon a Time…” goes on forever.’
It is morning, May in England, Ascot Priory wood.
In a clearing by the pathway, a branch
invites a bow. I lay my forehead
on its bark, its skin on mine is cool with rain.
These trees once belonged to nuns,
who too found time, between
bell and candle, to walk and wonder,
to look overhead when summoned
by the wind’s reason and the leaves’ reply.
Now that whisper is for me
and some Buddhist friends, here
for a retreat.
My room in this place once
was someone’s home. Last night
I saw her rise again
stride into her stiff-black habit,
hide her hair. At the corner sink,
a brisk splash of water to the face,
one eye only to the mirror.
Soft shoes shuffling out, along
corridor tiles to Mass.
Head bowed to altar,
her day an offering to the glory
of her god, to his rendering
of the greater good.
Safe, safe within her solid priory walls,
how could she ever have imagined
a few decades on
her room for hire? (And to the likes of me)?
And all her sisters, and all their way of life,
In the graveyard underneath the trees
they lie coffined, row on row.
Each has a wooden cross to tell:
her age at death;
how many years she lived
Above them a giant Jesus still presides,
all iconography intact: spike
nailing feet, one above the other, to the planks;
cloth closed round the primal place, protected
even in last agony. Open chest and arms
and palms; his crown of thorns;
and, of course, his beard.
This god’s a man, make no mistake.
Oh, what a tale to tell.
I grew up in grounds like this
with nuns who tried to teach his way
with sticks and prayers.
‘Thou Shalt Nots’ ruled
their days and ours
and almost always failed us.
But still. Still
the story stands,
on more than rod, or rule,
or cross, passing
on the all that whispers always:
wind to leaf, sap to skin,
ever on and back again,
so that tonight, I’ll lie down
in my nun’s room, imagining
her way, knowing how
it came to end
is how mine must begin.