The Greek verb anachoreo meant withdraw or depart, or withdrawing to a
No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understands, the
grievousness, but I will attempt to write this tale. And, having
read this, if you do not understand, I cannot help you. This is a
miraculous work, of which one can tell you nothing, unless it is a
Some items cry out to be stolen. But not words, yet I refused to tell
this story for a long time, as an exercise in humility. Now,
however, I’m writing this, and although you will want to think it’s
about me, it’s not. It’s about a body, first of all bodies and how
because of this, I am not the person I was, but am changed into someone
else, and this is a new life.
I wonder if you will understand if I tell you, it’s about the supreme
one, in the form of a woman. It is for Her. She who needs no
dedication. She’s been returned and all shall be well...
She was the symbol of a matriarchal culture, or a goddess of a
militaristic society which placed special significance on women’s
ability to produce soldiers. She was a cult object for a group, or a
personal item of one human being. She was worshipped. Sacrificed. She is
grotesque, she is beautiful. She has no name; she has many names. She is
mother; she is virgin. She is a hunter and the pursued. Goddess. Human.
Totem. Toy. A self-portrait divinely inspired. A caricature. She is all
of us. My hands shake as I write this, but She is me.
Until the hour I saw her, she had been hidden from me. At the
moment, She is an object, a priceless statuette, a little over four
inches tall, made of limestone, with minute smudges of red ochre. She
exists but She is gone.
Stolen, they said.
Returned, I replied.
There is no language to speak of Her, except with the voices of other
women, whatever She may be, gracious or merciless; to me it is all
If I uttered a word, breathed a sigh or cast a glance towards any person
who could understand me, my humanity would be well content. But
communication, like excavation is delicate; the closer one approaches
truth, the bedrock, the smaller the tools become, until they’re nothing
more than brushes tracing the edges of meaning. So too, in excavating a
story. Sometimes, there are solid façades of written records like bricks
and mortar, other times meanings are teased out of fragmented folktales.
The source of this old wives’ tale is a note in the records of an abbey.
I tell the tale here.
Gentle yellowing sunsets are reflected limestone walls that support
cupolas that pink and blue in correspondence to the evening sky, which
is pierced by slender pencil pines supplicating the towers they imitate.
The dim interior, where crowds of gilt icons reflect smoky candles of
the devoted is quiet. See every surface plastered and frescoed in
dedication to some saint, whose meagre remains were feted annually.
In this realm, draped effigies occupy shadowed niches, their melancholy
features betraying the influences of this great cathedral. The
experienced eye dates it to the early 16th century, but based on much
older foundations. Its builders are nameless.
That there was an architect and a commissioning prince is certain. That
the cathedral exists is truth. All else is another type of history that
predates the building and its oft plundered treasures, writing, and
And the tale continues: this knowledge is taken to be nothing but
women’s whispers and the stuff of childhood nightmares. The sensitive
admit its visceral effect on the body is not unlike that of the clouds
of incense in this venerable space and best banished with a brisk walk
amid the pine-scented mountain air.
This house of reverence is also a shelter for the dead, built over a
crypt for its bishops and monks, whose nearby monastery is gently
decaying in their long absence. The crypt, the vaulted grotto beneath
the cathedral, was not quarried, but refined by masons cajoled into
delving into its cavernous secrets. From atop that limestone ridge, they
stepped into the bowels of the earth.
Some versions claim the builder couldn’t finish the crypt or strengthen
the foundations without a pact with a she-devil. Nonetheless, it wasn’t
the devil the community turned to; it was custom more ancient. Other
versions reveal the mason was reduced to working alone and thus began
the rumours that a sacrifice was ordered to see the work progress, with
the builder’s wife walled in to save the building. However, this is the
version of the story I prefer.
The crypt was sealed, but the hearsay persisted. It grew into a fireside
yarn and travellers fashioned it with their own familiar particulars,
until its provenance was eroded entirely. However, the bones of the
story remained, jutting out of the surface bedrock, just like the church
on the mountain. Before the decision to seal it was approved by the
bishop, the mason ventured in one last time. With his flickering torch
he went beyond the last hewn step into winding passages. At one point,
the mason slipped and his torch fell, guttered and went out. His hands,
breaking his fall, sank into the silten earth and, reaching in the dark,
his fingers found and clutched a solid ball, which he held as he
crawled, feeling his way towards fresher air, where he knew the stairs
In the confusion and relief once he had returned to the light, his
object was forgotten, slipped absently into his tunic like a wizened
apple. That evening, the master remembered his apple and brought it
forth. It was small and roundish and caked in layers of soil. He chipped
away at it, before his wife gently washed it and soon features emerged
in the limestone. For stone it was, cold to the touch and much worn. It
was a body, a misshapen form. Two stumpy footless legs protruded from a
distended belly at its widest point. Above the pregnant torso hung two
pendulous mounds, breasts, but there were no arms and above the chest it
terminated in a thinning neck and a small nub, upon which patterns had
been scratched in circles. The mason had not seen its like before. That
evening, the mason dreamed of dark places; the little statue by the bed.
In the night, the earth too dreamed, and rumbled. By morning, dust had
cleared but sections of the crypt’s roof were weakened. Cracks appeared
in the columns and walls supporting the foundations. The apprentice
summoned the mason, who examined the edifice in the dawn light. Later,
the prince summoned the bishop and the mason. The mason, alone of his
workers affirmed he could save the cathedral. The bishop crossed himself
and assured the prince that through prayer and works the Cathedral could
be saved, but there was one proviso. The cathedral, once dedicated to a
great man of faith had to be rededicated. To a woman. They chose St
Katherine, patron saint of students and nuns and a woman who never
existed. I laughed when I read that. They forget the real and invent
what they need for their own purposes. Thus, the genuine end of the
story was that on the wife’s advice, the mason returned to the cave
beneath the crypt, reburied the figurine and planted the grove around
the cathedral in penance and those actions saved it. They renamed not
the church, but the buried idol and there she lay for centuries, while
above, monks sang devotions to their saint. Their goddess.
Here, I’ve imagined that mountain, before the wars and disease swept the
land, before the prayers were silenced, the crypt. Forgotten except for
one document, read by one student. I see this book with the eyes of my
soul and hear it with the ears of my spirit and feel it in every part of
And my story? The ruins of the building were mapped. Inevitably,
excavations revealed the crypt, those hewn stairs, and then the caves
beneath. In one moment, the world was filled with wonder: She was
found. However, as in the old stories then came the fall. She was taken,
analysed, packaged up and displayed…no tongue can tell nor explain the
That was the error, this life is my penance. Can I rejoice in the
This place is a prison yet I’ve no doubts about what I did. It was
no mere human decision. The law says I’ve been led astray, but I’ve
returned to the earth what belongs to the earth. This is right, as is my
end, immured here, deep in the ground of my beseeching. Although I
turn to the expressions of other women, taking from them the rules and
maxims of virtue beyond mere human laws, I’m not frightened.
Everything passes away and I shall not be overcome. What happens to
me, whether I am in prison; however, it turns out, is the work of
love. As with what I wrote on the card I left in place of Her:
reason, you will always be half-blind. In court, my accusers got
the quote right, but I will offer no more of this world.
Every church is the house of God, every body a house of a soul. Flesh is
stone, to be shaped. Bodies, like the earth, must be governed in service
to the Spirit. Mine too in this beloved prison. But older ideas
refuse to die and the mountain, whose sacred grove had been home to the
goddess, remains. She is safe again. Do you understand? I’m more
confused than satisfied with the words I have used to express myself,
but I have found nothing better.
Oh, you in whom I am endlessly born and out of whom I shall never
come I say I have been saved; it’s a relief. I’m scratching out
these words from the light from a small patch of sky high up the wall:
so blue. While there are no names in this forgotten place, it is here
where love will be seen since I am the fulfilment of the tradition.
This body walled in, buried. I told the judge: I acknowledge my crime to
correct previous and greater ones. It is enough for me.
Here is this world, this room and this precious beloved of mine,
this last record of what many women have done before, in countless
stories: give themselves. Like them I wait in the dark, where time is no
more than the point of a needle, and when time is over, so is
suffering. Therefore, we will lament no more