When the long cold winter finally burst into glorious spring, I was too big with child to till the fields so the nuns put me to work in the herb garden. With its shades of green, blue, lilac and pink and gentle fragrances, it might have been my own little paradise, if not for the high stone wall that surrounded it. Often, as I worked, I would sit back and gasp, for the child was moving often now and its kicks were strong.
The day it quickened, the novices screamed with excitement. ‘Oh, Taneli, you must be so happy,’ they cried. ‘You’re so lucky.’ How they envied me my child, though they would not say it aloud. For all their show of piety, not one of them was there for pure love of the sky-gods. Like me, they were women who had been rejected by their families as unwanted and unneeded, their parents dead or too poor to feed them, their married sisters jealous of losing one of their precious husbands to them. At night, after the novice mistress closed the heavy wooden door to our dormitory, we would put our heads together and whisper our tales to each other. They were fascinated by mine for they were all virgins who had never known a man’s loving touch. They pretended to be appalled when I told them of the time we climbed up to the caves above the village to worship Avakama the Mother, but were eager to know more.
Only Helikki was staunch in her loyalty to the sky-gods. Gentle as she was, she would challenge me when I praised the Mother or declared that I would never take the vows.
‘Life in a nunnery is not so bad,’ she would say. ‘You’ll want for nothing.’
‘Except for love and freedom,’ I would retort.
‘Love and freedom have done you no good.’
‘But neither will I spend my days in worship of the gods that punish me by depriving me of them.’
‘Is it really they who punish you? Was it the sky-gods who bade you fall in love with your sister’s husband? Was it the sky-gods whom you worshipped when you lay with him? Was it the sky-gods who made you pregnant? Is it any wonder her worship is forbidden? She brings nothing but trouble.’
‘This is Avakama’s land. The sky-gods have tried to usurp her, but they cannot.’
‘They did not usurp her. They came at our calling to bring us peace and plenty. They have provided us with a home. We worship them in gratitude for what they have given us.’
‘Peace? Plenty? A home? Helikki, this is nothing more than a tomb for unwanted women. Should we thank the gods for providing us with a grave?’
Helikki could not reply, for she, too, was there because she had nowhere else to go.
But as I knelt in the warm sunshine, breathing in the scent of herbs, feeling my child move, I could think only that it would have been better for me if it had died in the womb. Its birth could bring me nothing but misery. If it was a boy, he would be taken from me and I would never see him again, and if it was a girl, I would be trapped with her behind these walls for the rest of my life. There was only one I could turn to for help.
During the winter, at times I had been put to work in the pottery. I was thankful for the kiln made it one of the few warm places in the nunnery. One day, when I was left there alone, I took some clay and made a forbidden shape. To fire it, I hid it amongst the plant pots and water jugs and made sure to volunteer to empty the kiln. As the nights got warmer, I would sneak out of the dormitory and steal into the herb garden where I had placed a flat rock. Kneeling before it, I would unwrap my little statue and place it on the stone. It was a crude likeness, I know, and I had to imagine that the blank face bore a benign smile and that the two rows of lumps down her torso where rounded breasts, but when I closed my eyes, Avakama the Mother shone before me.
‘Dear Mother,’ I would pray. ‘Take me to your bosom. Save me from the fate the sky-gods have decreed for me. Let me not be entombed here, far from your arms. Grant us your protection, for me, for my child, and for Naimar, my love. Let him not wander alone. Let us be reunited under your auspices. But whether or not, in your wisdom, oh great Mother, you grant me that which I beg of you, I swear to dedicate my life to you.’
One night I heard behind me, ‘Do you now?’
Transfixed by fear, I dared not turn around to see who had spoken.
‘Do you dare worship the Mother here in the nunnery of Lord Taivus himself?’ But though the words were harsh the voice was mild. ‘Come, child. Turn to me. Let me see your face.’
I turned slowly. It was the novice mistress. All the girls were terrified of her, but I could defy her. ‘I am not one of your novices, Vani Olavi. I have taken no vows and don’t intend taking any.’
‘What do you intend, then? To travel the roads with your child tied to your back? You know there is no place for a woman alone out there. There is nowhere to go but here.’
She was right. My face burned and tears stung my eyes.
Vani Olavi came closer and picked up the statue. ‘You made this yourself. How did you know her form?’
‘My child’s father took me up to her sanctuary above the village. He wanted to give her thanks for our love.’
‘Did you thank her, too?’
‘Yes. He gave me great joy.’
‘That is more than most women in this place have known.’
I held my breath, afraid the nun would smash my statue, but instead she handed it back to me.
‘In future, keep it better hidden. Come to the temple tomorrow an hour after midnight prayers and we’ll begin your instruction.’ And with that she turned and walked away.
Bewildered, I held the statue to my breast and thanked the Mother, though I did not know what to make of her.
The next night, under a dark yellow moon, a shawl covering my tell-tale hair, I skirted the dormitory, kitchen and prayer hall until I came to the steps of the temple. Afraid of a trap, I paused and crouched behind a pillar. As I waited, two figures scurried up the steps and through the heavy doors left ajar. Assured at least that I would not be trapped alone, I followed them in.
A group of silent women, their hoods drawn over their shaven heads, squatted around the altar. Few looked about them at the newcomers. I joined them and waited. Finally the heavy door closed and the women began to stir and rise to their feet. Standing with them, I heard the tapping of flint against flint, the hiss of a flame and then from behind the altar a dim light grew. It began to move and we followed it. We paused while two women hefted up a trap door, then continued to follow the light down worn stone steps into a crypt lined with funerary urns, through another door and down more stone steps, steep, misshapen and slippery. When we reached the ground, we stopped and the door behind us closed.
Slowly the single light began to spread to an array of candles and torches hanging from the rough walls of a cave and out of the gloom emerged an ancient Avakama, three times as high as a woman, carved from a single limestone block. Traces of gold and white and red paint still clung to her. Her smile was serene and warm, her long rows of breasts, round and inviting, those within reach worn by caressing hands. On either side of her were two large urns which Vani Olavi lit, releasing heady aromas. Behind her we formed orderly ranks. When we were still and silent, Olavi’s voice rang out in a string of notes that ricocheted off the walls. The women around me echoed her then joined her in a long repetitive chant, their bodies swaying backwards and forwards, while pungent scents filled the air.
For all its strangeness, I felt I had found where I belonged. Though the words my sisters were chanting eluded me, I soon picked up the tune and joined in as best I could. The music and incense filled my being until I felt my mind falter altogether and found myself held upright by several arms. When I opened my eyes again, all was silent and Vani Olavi was stroking my cheek and smiling down at me. ‘The Mother has touched you. The child will be under her protection.’
Every afternoon for the next moon, Vani Olavi gave me instruction. We would pace slowly around the cloister, Vani Olavi unrolling a scroll of the ancient texts before me which she would seem to elucidate to me for the sake of the older nuns watching us, though it was not the sky-gods’ teachings that she taught me. While her words were passionate, she kept her face calm and her voice low as she told me the true history of our country.
It was once a peaceful land ruled by the Mother and a dynasty of queens, but the sky-worshippers coveted our land and its riches and so they came from the west and slaughtered and conquered. They murdered all the males of the royal line and forced the women to marry them. They imposed their gods on us and their god-king and buried the Mother’s sanctuaries under their temples and monasteries.
Before the sky-worshippers came the land was held by women and households were ruled by the mother and her daughters. There were no surplus women then for there was no marriage. No woman was condemned to marry a brood of brothers or forced to choose between life as a barren drudge, a nun or a sanctuary woman. They answered to no husband and lay with any man they chose. Yet even though all women could breed, there were not too many children for the land to feed for women knew how to control their own wombs. But this was a secret torn from us by the sky-worshippers who accused the wise women and midwives of witchcraft and slaughtered them in unspeakable ways until all their knowledge was lost and the women that remained were too terrified to practise what they had been taught.
But try as they might the sky-worshippers could not eliminate Avakama or her worship. Though they closed down those of her sanctuaries that they could see, her worship has gone underground, deep into the Mother’s womb where she has always been found, in caves and grottoes, deep in the darkness where the sky-worshippers dare not venture. Carved statues give her form, but she can be seen everywhere – in every stream, in every rock, in every tree, in every breath of wind… in every woman. And now I had found her in me.
I would happily dedicate my life to Avakama, I told Vani Olavi, but not there in the nunnery, not surrounded by those walls. I could not stay there once my child was born, but neither could I go back to my family. What would I do?
Olavi caressed my cheek. ‘Hush, child, the Mother will provide,’ she said. ‘She always does.’
And so in a great wave of pain I thought I would never survive, my child was born. It was a boy, perfectly formed, soft and fragrant. I bathed him in my tears and in his swaddling clothes I wrapped a bronze talisman on a chain, three interlocking spirals, the symbol of Avakama. As she gently took him from me, Vani Olavi assured me that his grandmother would place it around his neck when he was old enough.
That night I lay in my dormitory bed, my pillow wet with tears, my breasts engorged and aching, my arms circling my knees, as though to keep my child within the protection of my body. Would I ever see my son again? And if I did, would he know me? Would my sister and her husbands poison his mind against me? Would he even be told I existed? The novices’ snoring could not answer my questions.
As I lay awake in my loneliness, I heard voices calling, the outer gate dragged across the scree, the clop of hooves, the inner door creaking open. Lifted by some nameless hope, I went to the window. Below was a party of travellers, noble ones I fancied given their ornate carriage and caparisoned mounts. The portress, hospitaller and several more nuns rushed to their service, holding the nobleman’s steed still as he dismounted, helping his lady wife from the carriage. And then above the din, I heard it, a sound that sent milk gushing from my swollen breasts, the petulant cry of an exhausted baby.
I sank back onto my bed. How could I bear this? How could I live without him? Perhaps if I begged her, my sister would let me come home, if I promised never again to raise my voice or lift my eyes, except to gaze upon my child. But all I could see ahead of me was hopelessness and tears.
‘You, girl. Taneli, isn’t it?’
Through my tears, I saw the dull light of a lantern. It was the hospitaller.
‘Come. You’re needed. No time to get dressed, just put on your shoes and a mantle. Follow me.’
Wiping away my tears, hoping for I know not what, I did as I was told, and followed the hospitaller across the courtyard to the guest house. The baby’s crying grew louder and louder as we approached.
The noblewoman was trying to hold the wriggling, screaming child to her naked breast. ‘Is this her? Come feed him. I have no more milk and he will not settle.’
My arms opened of their own accord. I took the brown baby, opened my shift and let the child’s gaping mouth latch onto my nipple. I gasped at his greedy sucking. The child must have been starving. He sucked not only milk, but love from my breast and my pain eased.
‘Thank the gods,’ his mother breathed. She was beautiful, with a heart-shaped face, large brown eyes, skin like bronze and hair thick, black and straight.
The baby began to squirm and I put him to my other breast.
‘He seems to like your milk more than mine, what little there is of it,’ she said with a sigh as she laced up her gown. ‘Vani Hospitaller, do you think she would give up her vocation to come with us?’
The hospitaller shrugged. ‘Ask her. She’s made no vows. She only came to us because she was carrying a bastard, but it’s off her hands now.’
The noblewoman looked at me. ‘Then you will have milk to spare. Will you come with us…what is your name?’
‘Taneli, will you come with us? We are heading for Taivaros now, to attend the court, but in the autumn we’ll be returning to our estates only a day’s journey from here. You can stay with us until he is weaned and then… well, the gods will provide.’
Thanking the Mother for providing, I nodded and said, ‘Yes, my Lady. I would like that.’
© Pauline Montagna 2022