This story appeared in Mslexia issue 72, Winter 2016/17
Sister Arilda of the Healing Hands
by Rue Baldry
In the middle of the night, unconscious, he was left at the Hospiteum door. The Sisters on duty carried him to me in the Infirmary. I am the one they call Sister Arilda of the Healing Hands. He became my responsibility. He was my only patient that night; I was the only Sister on nursing duty.
He was covered in blood. The cut to his temple was too slight to account for so much. The blood had dried dark into his hair, pasting it onto his cheek. I washed his face with warm lavender-water. His beard was short and his skin stretched taut over his cheekbones, unlined around his eyes. My dry, bony, liver-spotted hands looked older than ever against his youthfulness. I rinsed the wash cloth repeatedly, then tipped the russet water away into the cess pit, away from the drinking spring. When I returned to him, with bandages, scissors, fresh water and poultice, his hair had dried curly and sandy, paler than I had thought.
I held my candle flame close to his slackly sleeping face to enjoy the fullness of his lips, his eyebrows, his chin, the strong line of his nose with its two unnatural, previously broken, lumps. I never claimed to be good at the self-denial part of my calling. Then I eased scissors under the neck of his tunic and snicked through the fabric, cutting away blood-stiffened rags which had once been velvet, discarding them, little piece by little piece. I swept them up, threw them onto the fire and lit more candles.
I soaked his chest hairs so I would be able to release the fabric stuck to them without pulling them out. While the water did its work, I cleaned his arms, stroking down from shoulders to finger-tips, relishing the hardness of his swollen muscles under stretched skin. His forearms were tanned amber-brown; above the elbows he was so white that the blue of his veins showed through. He was covered in old scarring: small, red nicks and long, jagged, silver lines. But he had no fresh wounds. Yet, the thick blood between his fingers was still tacky. I had to rinse out the cloth and change the water many more times. I ran a soft towel over his arms. Then, as he still did not wake, I let my fingertips follow the towel’s path, worship his shapes.
He slept the deep sleep of the injured. Like death with breaths, it is. That would help him to mend more than anything else, so I decided to prolong it with a poppy tincture which I dropped from a cork between his parted lips.
The wet tunic lifted from his chest hairs. They curled, bronze, against new bruises. Looked like broken ribs. I laid both my hands on his chest and closed my eyes. My fingers located numerous fractures through his ropes of muscle. Bandaging would not be possible, not yet, because that would involve lifting him to wrap it round his back and, for now, he needed to lie flat and still. I spread a thick poultice over his ribs instead.
His nipples were tightly-budded and dark red. I rubbed at one with my thumb.
Dried blood filled his belly-button and ran down the soft creases to his groin. Still I found no lacerations.
I cut down the length of his breeches and slowly pulled them away from his skin, tantalising myself. I lit yet more candles to admire his parts for a while.
I wiped every inch of his body clean, through the hair thickly covering his chest, and the sparser hair on his hard belly, down into the curly thicket at his groin. Between his thighs was soft and white. His soles were tough. Cheekbones and hips both jutted like sculpture. I longed to turn him over, to touch the rest of him.
I covered him in a blanket when his skin raised goose pimples, though I would rather have had him bare to my gaze. The black sky beyond the high windows was turning grey as I burned what was left of his blood-stained clothes. It seemed to me that he would thank me for that if there were questions later, and also that it would be impossible for a naked man to escape our city-centre nunnery unnoticed. I did not fetch him a nightshirt from the laundry.
Instead, I pilfered anointed oil from the chapel, to rub into his glorious skin under the blanket. The coarse wool scratched at the backs of my hands as the oil slicked their palms. I moisturised behind his knees and under his toes. I poured oil between his legs and stroked it up. He whimpered lightly from the depths of his slumber.
The sun had risen by then so I had to go to Lauds.
Some Sisters find particular vows more difficult to keep than others. Sister Eilwed breaks her vow of silence at least three times a day. I suspect she even talks to herself alone in the bell tower. During prayers that morning, she held her lips tight bitten together and her eyes darted to mine more often than they did to the crucifix above the altar. By breakfast her teeth were chewing at themselves as she fidgeted on the hard bench, with her knee shaking. I allowed her her outlet in the wash house. I did not speak myself; that particular vow is not the one which troubles me.
‘The Earl has been murdered,’ she whispered as the well bucket splashed. ‘Stabbed. Repeatedly. An assassin. The succession is uncertain.’
A novice came into the washroom. We bowed our heads and dedicated ourselves to cleanliness until the room was empty again.
‘Blood everywhere, they say. His granddaughter found him. The poor dear. She surprised the assassin, who leaped out of the window. It’s a long drop from there, but there was no sign of a corpse this morning.’
I returned to my patient, taking off the blanket to stare by sunlight. When he began to rouse I locked the doors. With a start, he tried to sit up, which caused him to wince and cry out with pain. He began a panicked patting of the straw under him, before looking down with shock at his own nakedness, then turning his gaze on the rest of the Infirmary, grabbing the blanket from the floor and pulling it over him up to his neck.
I approached the bed, motioning with my finger over my lips when he attempted to speak. I bowed my head and clasped my hands in a pious manner, positioning myself under a window so that golden light would fall about me. Seeing a white-haired woman in a nun’s habit must have explained to him where he was, and made him feel quite safe. He quieted. He continued to tap distractedly at the places where his pockets had been. There had been no weapon with him when he arrived.
His soft lips were pale and tense, now, and his high brow was furrowed in pain. I fetched a cold poppy porridge from the medicinal pantry, which I spoon fed to him. He blinked heavily and his breath evened out. A morsel fell from his lips onto my finger and I judged him sleepy enough by then, so I pushed my laden finger into his warm, moist mouth. He sucked on it. His eyelids closed.
My silent contemplation at Primes was not on the Lector’s reading as it should have been; my mind followed the places where my hands had been that night.
For two days he slept most of the time. I changed his poultice twice a day, washed and oiled his body more often than was strictly healthy, and fed him turnip water and soporific herbs.
After Vespers on the third day, I returned to the Infirmary to find him half-asleep, grunting and moving awkwardly under the blanket. Although his eyes were open, they were so glazed that he did not notice me until I was halfway across the rush-strewn floor. When he did, he abruptly stopped moving and blushed furiously. I lowered my eyes and clasped my hands in prayer while his breathing steadied. When I took away the blanket, his hands raced to cover his arousal. He turned his face towards the blank stone of the wall.
Placing his arms by his sides, in the positions which I judged to be most comfortable given his injuries, I took him in hand myself. He turned to look at me then, his mouth opened and his eyebrows shooting up, but then his eyes closed as I ministered to him. I set up a fast pace, in the hopes that it would steal the breath he had for asking questions. When he was done, I set to washing him again. He watched me, but said nothing.
Unfortunately, at that time a child was brought in from a nearby village, suffering fever and convulsions. I was obliged to nurse her and given a novice to assist me. She took six days to die, during which time I was unable to care for my other patient in any but the most basic ways.
After her burial, I returned from Compline with a detour through the cellars, to filch a flagon of spiced wine for us to share. That night, as I bathed him to prepare him for sleep, he was able to sit up for the first time. His back was covered in flaking, brown blood with pieces of straw sticking to it. He tried to strain round to see it for himself. That was not possible, but he did note the colour of the water in the washing bowl. His concerned face watched mine for a reaction. I gave him none, continuing with careful, calm care. I renewed his poultice. Now that he could sit up, I was able to wrap a bandage round his chest. The movement exhausted him and he needed no poppy porridge to sleep soundly until well after dawn.
His flesh was hot, hairy, and hard under my exploring hands.
Next noon Sister Eilwed was full of tales of regencies and usurpings and the mysterious assassin who had vanished into the night. My thoughts were too saturated with carnal sins to listen properly.
I fed him beans with my fingers at dusk. He licked my hand clean. At Compline, I held my folded hands under my nose while the prayers were said, inhaling the scent of his saliva instead of the blessings of the divine.
He watched me walk back into the Infirmary with a slow smile creeping over his face.
I stroked his curls back off his forehead. He clasped my wrist, holding me in place, then tugging lightly. Obediently, I moved closer to him, whereupon his other hand scratched at my habit, and lifted its hem. Between us we struggled my grey, flaccid, unremarkable body out of it. Still lying flat and steady on his back, he tugged my face to his. He kissed my neck with his fingers at my nipples, then pulled me onto him. His hands ran over me. I straddled him, sank down. He took me as close to heaven as I am ever likely to get now. When we were done, I lay limp beside him. The straw in which he had lain for so long smelled of sweat and lavender and sex.
I woke with the sun blazing white off the stone walls, naked and sore. My knees hurt the most. He had gone, along with my habit and sandals, the blanket, the loaves for the orphans’ suppers, the poor box, and three knives from the kitchen. I have been called to a meeting with the Abbess. It will be another difficult one. I had better take myself to confession before I go.