I feel a tiny smile play around my lips, for just a moment, before I regain composure and force my face back into the seriousness that suits the situation, my situation. I think I manage in time — no one has seen me smile, and my eyes look closed, though they are opened just the tiniest bit so I can see the white shimmer of my hands.
I like the Agnus Dei, I have liked it since I was a little girl. It reminds me of how Robert told me it was about me when I was not old enough to understand anything yet. Once, for example, he was holding my hand as we walked by a church where they were singing, Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. He said “Psht, listen Agnes, they are singing about you.”
Later, when he was a bit older, he didn’t say that anymore, and then I too already knew what they were singing; but I remember. Maybe I shouldn’t. It’s probably blasphemous or at the very least silly, but I can’t help thinking back to that day, and how he held my hand tightly in his, and how he smiled at me and said, “They’re singing about you.” I can’t help smiling just a little bit when I think of that. And I always think of it when I am in church and praying, when I should have a serious expression and my eyes closed, and it always makes me smile and open my eyes a little bit to look at my hands.
My hands are pale now, as I never really go outside, and they are pressed flat against each other. They look small and white against the dark fabric of my clothes. I always liked looking at my hands. They are fine, and while they are small, the fingers are still quite long – they look almost a bit like the hands of a noblewoman I think, but then, that’s not something I should think about. But my hands have always been the one thing about me I really liked. They looked so small in his bigger, darker hands. They disappeared into them when we walked along the street past that church, so many years ago. When I think of him, I always have to look at my hands.
I shouldn’t think of him though, and even more, I shouldn’t open my eyes – it’s safer to have them closed, I keep forgetting that. And when I have to get up and walk to the front of the church, I should keep my eyes on my feet, it’s not good to look around.
Like back then, last year — is it really just a year ago? I believe it is, to the day — when I looked up, and I saw him sitting there with Father and the other boys, and he looked over to our side, and for a moment his eyes met mine, and I wanted to smile, but his eyes had already gone on, and they were looking at Katharina. I saw her look back at him for just a moment, before she blushed and looked at the ground, and then I looked at him again, and he was smiling for her. His smile was different from any of the smiles he ever smiled for me, and I felt a wave pain surging up somewhere inside me. ‘He’s going to ask for her hand soon,’ I thought, and the pain increased. I looked back at my hands. They were still small but with fine, long fingers, pressed against each other. They were shaking a bit.
I had to get up then for holy communion, and my legs were also shaking. I wasn’t sure I could make it without fainting. ‘Maybe it’s the heat,’ I thought. It was so hot that summer, the heat lingered even inside the thick walls of our church, and I was sweating in my summer dress. I could feel little drops of sweat loosen from under my arms and run down along the sides of my body as I got up to go to the front for the holy eucharist with Mother and my little sisters. I had my eyes open then, but the darkness inside the church and the people gathered in the front and the preacher and the cup he was holding, all started to blur a bit in front my eyes. I was sure I was going to faint, but I didn’t. Instead, I remembered my brother’s smile, and Katharina’s blush, and that he was going to ask for her hand soon, and it all felt like a little pang in my heart.
‘Maybe it’s because she is younger than I am,’ I thought.
I had already finished my eighteenth year the winter before, and no one seemed to think of asking for my hand. None of the boys from the village ever looked at me like that. I suppose I am not all that pretty. I don’t have wavy black hair and creamy skin and a curvy body like Katharina. I am small and skinny, I have freckles everywhere, and my hair gets a bright red colour under the summer sun, though Mother used to always wash it with special herbs and roots to make it look a bit darker.
Robert said I am pretty, though. When I was little, he told me I looked like a princess — even though I don’t at all, except that my hands are much finer than is common for a peasant girl and my skin might be white enough. It always gets burned when I am outside too much.
But that was when I was outside too much, that is, because these days I am never really outside anymore.
Back then, I was always outside. A year ago, the summer was at least as hot as this one, hotter I would say, and everyone would have liked to just hide inside their houses, but you have to work if you want to live and a good Christian isn’t afraid of working, even if the sun is shining as mercilessly as it was that summer.
I walked along the little path by the forest at noon every day. I had done so every day during the weeks before the day I almost fainted in church, and I did so in the days afterwards — this particular day was probably just a few days after that Sunday when he had smiled at Katharina in church, and Katharina blushed and hid her face, but had that glimmer in her eye that betrayed her blush to be nothing but a game of coquetry.
The sun was burning parts of my arms and legs my dress didn’t cover and the sand felt like glowing coals under my bare feet. I still liked the feeling though, and I liked the smell of hot sand under the sun, mixed with a few dry pine needles that fell off the trees due to the heat. I was walking quickly — every now and then the shade of tall trees covered the path, and I jumped from one shady part to the next, where I slowed down in the illusion that it was a bit cooler, enjoying the relief for my skin.
It was warm under my headscarf, so I took it off and shook my hair free in the air. There was a slight breeze for just a moment; it felt nice to have a little bit of wind play with my hair. It felt daring to do so, to bare my head, but no one was around to see me and I kept walking and looking down at my dusty feet and the brightness of the sand. My hand carrying the little bundle of food for Robert caught my eye, and for a moment I enjoyed the way my hand looked against the blue colour of the fabric the food was wrapped in, and then I walked faster, realising he must be hungry, he must be waiting for me.
The thought of him waiting for me made my heart skip just a little bit, and I started running, even though little stones on the ground cut into my feet – my dirty feet – but I couldn’t wait to be there, to have that half hour I got with him every day when he took a break from his work in the forest, and ate, and smiled at me. My little princess — no, he hadn’t said that for years, but still, for that half hour he was mine, only mine, and there was no Katharina or anyone around for him to smile at, all his smiles were only for me.
Our oat field was a tiny stretch near the forest, far away from the house. We didn’t own much land near the village, and so we had to walk quite a distance to it every day in summer. Robert worked there alone since Father had become so sick, and at lunchtime, I walked there, to bring him something to eat. I could always see him from far away, working hard in the field, sweating under the sun. At some point he would look up and see me, and wave at me with one hand, and I would start running, even though that is not something a girl my age should do, run happily and fast, glad to feel my legs under me, impatient to be with him already.
But the field was empty that day. When I went closer, I could see his things on the ground – the materials, scythes and everything. The donkey was tied to a tree, and the cart was standing there too, but Robert wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
“Robert! Robert!” I shouted his name, but the heat seemed to swallow the sound as soon as it left my mouth. The forest was dark and menacing suddenly, and the crickets seemed to overshadow any sound. My heart was beating wildly, and I remember feeling cold, despite the heat. This wasn’t right, where was he?
I remember shivering under the sun, just as I shiver now, every day, under the cold weight of the walls of this church. The robes I have to wear are thick and heavy; they hide my body, but for some reason they don’t warm it. I am always cold now, even though the summer is as warm as it was last year. And that day, when I was standing by our field under the hot sun, I felt so cold, as if this place I am at now — the place I plan to stay at for the rest of my life — was already reaching out to me, clasping my heart with cold claws. Maybe I guessed at that very moment what the future would hold for me.
I felt a strong urge to turn around and run home. I couldn’t understand my own fear — it was normal for him to take breaks every now and then. You had to, under the burning sun, if you didn’t want the heat to kill you. Probably he had just taken a walk into the forest.
I pressed the little package with his lunch close to my chest, inhaling the earthy and reassuring smell of the potatos, bread and cheese that Mother had wrapped in it, and carefully, slowly stepped into the cool shade of the forest.
I felt goosebumps form on my skin, my fear was not over yet, but with every step away from the sun into the green, into the sound of bird song and smell of leaves, I felt more sure of myself. He’d be somewhere nearby, I told myself.
The forest is beautiful in summer, I like the forest. It’s one of the few places that offer protection from the heat and the dust that settles on everything in summer. The ground there is sandy too, of course, most of the ground is sand here, but grass and little plants hold it in its place, and it smells of berries and pine needles and leaves.
Somewhere in there was the sound of water and my feet led me there almost against my will. In between the trees, I could see a little creek winding its way through the forest. Clear water rushing over mossy stones, clean and innocent. For a moment, I was overwhelmed by the wish to kneel down beside the water. I wanted to scoop up some of that fresh wetness with my hands, wanted to feel its sweet taste in my mouth. I hadn’t had a drink all day, I had been helping Mother in the garden and with the animals – watering plants, carrying buckets of water for the sheep and pigs to drink, and forgetting to drink anything myself. That’s what our life is like.
The sound of someone moving in the water distracted me from my musings. I looked up, and a little further down the creek I saw him. Robert.
The water was deeper there. It reached up to his waist. Little specks of light were shining into the forest, through the trees, and reflected on the water. The reflections, again, seemed to play on his tanned skin. He was surrounded by green light. The high trees reminded me of a church, a chapel so different to this one I am sitting in right now, a place of light rather than darkness. His blond hair was the brightest spot in the whole forest, brighter even than the pearls of water running down along his skin, as he scooped up big hands full of water from the creek and washed his upper body. His muscles, trained from years of working in the fields, were visible with every movement.
I had seen him wash hundreds of times, since we were children. We had a little well behind our house, and he always cleaned himself there when he returned from a hard day of work, and sometimes I would come to get some water Mother needed for cooking dinner, and he would spray some water at me and grin when I shrieked and jumped away, losing the scarf I wrapped around my hair.
I had seen him wash hundreds of times, but something was different this time. Maybe it was the fact that none of our younger brothers and sisters were around, shouting and playing and demanding my attention. Maybe it was the fact that we weren’t in the dusty field behind our house, where everything smelled of animals and the sweat of a hard day’s work, but in this chapel of luscious green, filled with the chant of birds and rushing water breaking against stones. Seeing him there felt like an intrusion, like I was laying my eyes on something mysterious and sacred. I wondered if I was even supposed to be there, to see him, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
I don’t know how long I stood there, watching him. It was all different, like even Robert was a different person. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that this time he wasn’t wearing his trousers, as he would when washing his face and upper body in the evenings.
Robert leaned down, and scooped up more water with his hands. Straightening up, he lifted them over his face, which now was turned upwards to the green roof of treetops above him, and he let the water splash down on him like a rain of sparkling light and green reflections.
Something in me couldn’t wait for him to step out of the water. That same something kept me from turning my eyes away, or from showing myself. I stayed half-hidden behind a tree, my eyes transfixed on his smooth skin, darkened by daily work under the sun. As far away as I was, I could still make out little drops of water glistening as they ran down the muscles of his arms and chest. Somewhere in my fingers, awoke the urge to touch his skin. I felt a strange tickle in me, in my stomach, everywhere. A longing for this moment to never pass, to be able to watch him forever. And, at the same time, the wish to be discovered.
Then Robert stepped forward, towards the shore, and with every step he took, the water touched less of his body. It fled downward along the smooth surface of his skin, back to the river. I held my breath, then realized that my heart was beating wildly. With another step, the surface of the water was below his waist, and I forced myself to avert my eyes. My face felt hotter than it had when I had been walking under the bright sun.
Robert’s voice filled the forest. He hadn’t spoken loudly; his voice was soft and warm, yet there was something in it that made it impossible to not hear or even pretend I hadn’t heard.
“Why are you hiding your face? Look at me, there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
I looked up, and he was still standing there, the water above his knees, his skin a strange creamy colour from the reflections of the water and the sun shining softly through the green above him. He wasn’t smiling, but he didn’t look angry either. He looked like everything was as it was supposed to be.
“Did you think I didn’t know you were there? Come closer.”
Slowly I stepped forward, letting the space grow between me and the comforting tree trunk I had been standing behind. For some reason, coming out of hiding and being in full view of my brother made me feel exposed, as if it was me who was naked, not him. My face was still turned to the ground, but my eyes escaped the control I wanted to have over them and wandered back to Robert, studying every bit of his body until they reached his face. He started smiling at me then, his teeth shining white from between his lips.
“Why don’t you come into the water? You must be warm, Agnes, after walking all the way here from home.”
I walked until I reached the edge of the water.
Robert watched me with a smile. He did not seem to mind at all that I saw him naked. The way he stood there, it seemed to be the most normal thing in the world to him.
I gathered up my skirt, and held it with my hands, so it wouldn’t get wet when I stepped forward into the creek. The water was cool against my feet; it sent a slight tickling feeling throughout my body, and for a second I wanted to jump back out, but I stayed where I was.
Robert took another step toward me. His hand touched my face, which was still turned towards the ground. He lifted my face, looking right into my eyes. The water stopped feeling cold at my feet; a strange warmth swept through my body.
“You should take your clothes off, it’s much more fun to swim without them,” he said softly.
I felt myself blush.
“There is no need to be ashamed, Agnes. I am your brother. Don’t you remember anymore how we used to swim together in the river and the lake?”
I remembered. How could I forget? Back when life somehow had been much easier, when Father had been in full health and we were little and had not needed to help at home more than a few hours every day, our main job had been to guard the cows and sheep as they went grazing in the forest. That had been easy work. Usually the animals wanted to be near the water, to drink at some point, and Robert and I used to play in the water all day, checking only every now and then whether any of them had strayed. Now though, we had hardly any cows left. Oh, how I wished for those days back – days long before there was any Katharina that Robert would smile at in church.
At that moment though, Robert was smiling at me, and somewhere in his smile I believed I still saw the little boy, my older brother, the best friend of my childhood. I turned back to the shore and started opening the knot of my apron.
I could feel Robert’s eyes on me the whole time I undressed. It made me clumsy and I almost fell as I stepped out of my skirt. It hadn’t been like that back in the old days. Everything was natural back then. As young children, we wore only small shirts and maybe a skirt or shorts, and we had always dropped them in a matter of seconds before we jumped into the water — without as much as a look at each other. There was something quite different in the air now, a strange tension.
Robert kept watching me.
With my apron and my skirt off, I was fumbling with the buttons of my blouse. Somehow, it was harder to open than usual. Robert didn’t say a word, or even move. Something in his expression seemed almost hungry as he took in the parts of my skin that weren’t covered anymore, but I didn’t think much about it. In fact, I wasn’t thinking at all, there was still that strange feeling in my stomach, and my head felt dizzy.
When I was naked, standing insecurely by the shore, Robert smiled.
“Aren’t you coming into the water now?”
I did, and my feet touched the cold wetness of the river again. The water once again sent a cold tingle up my skin. Like ice, cutting through my body, but refreshing, at the same time, in the hot summer air. My head cleared a bit. I felt Robert’s eyes still on me, burning into me with their stare. My hands automatically went up to my breasts, trying to cover myself.
This wasn’t something a woman was supposed to do, bathing naked, much less in the presence of a man, even if he was her brother. Before I could think about this any further, Robert’s gaze finally turned away from me, and my brother ran deeper into the water. He threw himself forward and started swimming a few strokes.
“Come on, Agnes! It’s wonderful.”
Hesitantly I followed, but with every step I took, the fresh coolness of the river cleansed not only the sweat from my skin, but also washed away my worries and doubts. The creek was rather deep at this place, though never so deep that my feet could not reach the ground, and it felt wonderful to throw myself into the water, then jump back up into the warm air. I couldn’t swim, as swimming wasn’t something women were supposed to do. Robert had tried to teach me when we were little children, but when Father had found out he had been very angry, and had forbidden us from going to keep watch over the animals together for a while.
I watched Robert swim though, his muscles playing under his skin, which looked soft in the greenish water. Suddenly he disappeared under the water, and though I could still make out the shape of his body moving towards me, I held my breath. A second later, I felt something touch my legs and pull at them. With a mixture of a scream and laughter, I fell. My head dipped under the surface for a moment and I swallowed a big mouthful of water.
The next moment, Robert grabbed me to pull me out of the water, and for a moment his smiling face was very close to mine. I could feel his breath on my wet cheeks and his chest brushing my breasts. The moment seemed to last forever, and I was suddenly very aware of the fact that we were alone, and that neither of us was wearing any clothes. Robert’s hands held my arms as he pulled me up, then let go of them, and for a moment he was about to touch the small of my back and pull me yet closer to himself, I am sure. But he didn’t. Then both of us were standing again, and laughing, Robert turned around and moved away as fast as the more than waist high water allowed him.
“Just you wait,” I shouted, smiling, as I followed him.
It felt good to play again, to be silly and not think about work. I hadn’t run just for the joy of it in years.
He let me catch up with him soon, and though he was a lot stronger than me I managed to push him over so we both were lying in the water again, wrestling and trying to push each other’s heads back under the water, as we had done when we were little children. More than once, his hands brushed my breasts or the small of my back. At first I didn’t notice, but when I did, a little feeling of doubt appeared somewhere in the back of my mind. I felt exhilarated though, happier than I had been in years, and the dizziness that had spread from my stomach to my head earlier was back, and it pushed all doubt out of my mind.
‘He’s my brother’, I thought. ‘There can’t be anything bad about this. We are brother and sister, we always played in the water like this.’
After a few minutes, we paused. I was out of breath. We stood opposite each other, the water reaching our waists. Robert smiled at me, his eyes wandering up and down my body. They paused at certain places, longer than what seemed appropriate, and I was tempted to raise my hands and try to cover myself.
“You are beautiful, Agnes.”
I felt myself blush. It was as if I had wished all my life to hear these words from Robert, even though I knew they weren’t true, not in comparison to other girls, like Katharina. My skin was too light and I had freckles on my face and arms, and I was short, and too thin, my breasts small. I lacked the curves all other girls from the village seemed to have. Yet, Robert looked at me admiringly. There was an odd, almost hungry, expression in his eyes.
“Have you ever kissed a man, Agnes?”
His voice sounded soft, a whisper like that of the leaves in the trees in the slight breeze the afternoon brought.
Slowly I shook my head. He knew I hadn’t. A moment later, his face was right in front of mine. I didn’t know how that had happened – I could feel his breath, and then the touch of his lips on mine. Before taking a startled step backwards I hesitated just a second too long, and felt his tongue trying to find its way into my half open mouth.
And I could taste it still, when I stood opposite Robert, away a safe distance again. My mouth was still open, my lips seemed to burn where his had touched them.
“Don’t be scared, Agnes.”
His voice was calm, soothing. My brother’s voice, as I’d always known it. He had lifted one arm, holding it out towards me, as if wanting to hold me and draw me back near him.
“There is no one here but you and me. No one will ever know. And you want it too, don’t you? I have seen how you’ve been looking at me lately.”
His face was next to mine again. He smelled of the sun, of the dust from the field and of the water he had been bathing in. One of his hands was holding on to my arm, gently, yet that seemed to make it impossible to back away again. There was a power in his grip that had nothing to do with strength or force.
“There is nothing wrong about this, Agnes. You are so beautiful, it would be a shame if no one wanted to kiss you. And shouldn’t it be me, rather than one of those men from the village, who aren’t even smart enough to appreciate you?”
I suddenly noticed how blue his eyes were. They looked like a bit of sky, shining through between all the tall trees that surrounded us. I wondered how long it would take for his lips to touch mine again. Were they really as soft as they had felt for that one second? Or had I imagined it?
He let go of my arm, yet I didn’t move away from where I was standing. It seemed like his eyes were holding me captive now. His hand slid behind my head, his fingers entangling in my hair, and his face came closer and closer to mine. I closed my eyes. Then his lips were there again, his tongue making me forget everything I had been thinking. The world seemed to disappear. I was a bit afraid my legs might forget to support me, but Robert’s arms were wrapped around me, and held me securely.
Robert was kissing me, he wanted me, he loved me. Not Katharina, or any of the other girls in the village. He cared only for me, like it used to be.
I didn’t want to stop, I didn’t want to return to the reality of the forest around me. When Robert stopped kissing me, I didn’t want to open my eyes. But he took my hand and started leading me back to the shore, out of the water. I had to open my eyes, so I wouldn’t fall, and when I looked down, and then looked at him, as we stepped out the water, I saw his manhood.
I had caught a small glimpse of it, earlier, when he was bathing and I was watching him, but it had changed now. There had been talk about this. I remembered some of the girls my age that had already gotten married, talking, telling us things in secret that our mothers refused to talk about. I didn’t spend a lot of time with the other girls though, and hadn’t heard a lot.
Robert saw my look, and smiled. I blushed, and tried to look away, but couldn’t. His eyes were on me again. There was no surprise in his face though, just a desire that somehow made me feel scared and happy at the same time. Once again, I grew aware of my nakedness, of how exposed I was to his eyes. However, I didn’t want to cover myself up this time.
We sat down in the grass by the river, and again he put his hand behind my head, leaned over me, and started kissing me. I lay back, and felt the touch of Robert’s fingers traveling along my neck, caressing my skin.
His fingers reached my breasts, and I felt a shiver run through my body. His hands were rough from the work in the fields, but he was careful and gentle with his touch. He cupped my breasts, and then stroked them with just the tips of his fingers. When he took my nipples between his fingers, I realized that they had become hard as they do when I wash with cold water, or on those few, secret occasions when I… but this is nothing I should think about, now that I am here at this place, in this church. I shouldn’t think about that day in the forest either, but I can’t stop. Every day, my memory goes back to that day.
I wanted Robert to never stop touching and kissing me. His hands continued their journey – it seemed he wanted to feel every bit of my body. Finally, they reached the place between my legs. I don’t know how, but I knew I was wet there. I could feel the liquid in me, along with a feeling of emptiness, a wish to feel something in there. Even now, in the cool walls of the monastery, I feel warm when I think of his fingers’ touch, and how he carefully slipped a finger into me after a while. It moved in with ease, and for the first time since everything had started, I uttered a sound: A low, drawn out moaning that almost didn’t sound like my voice.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered the whispers of the married girls, of what they said their husbands did with them — and of how this was something that shouldn’t be talked about, much less done, with anyone but one’s husband. I pushed the thought away. This was different. Robert was my brother; he had always been there for me. If he said it was alright, then it was.
I wondered what would happen next. All of this was new to me, and for a second I wondered how Robert could know so well what to do, how to touch me. He didn’t seem hesitant at all, but more… I don’t know, curious. Like he was finally doing something he had planned for a long time.
He stopped kissing me, and his mouth moved closer to my ear. For a moment I felt his tongue there, but then all I felt was his breath as he whispered: “You know I will get married soon. I have to. But you are different than Katharina, Agnes. You are special. I want you to be my first, I have always wanted that.”
His face was above mine again, his blue eyes looking into mine as if he could see what was behind them, as if he could see what I was thinking or feeling.
“Do you want that, Agnes?”
He wasn’t whispering anymore. His voice was a bit hoarse, and shaking slightly.
“Do you want to be my first?”
I didn’t know what he meant, not really. I had an idea from what I had heard in those whispered conversations, a very vague idea. What I knew was only that Robert wanted something from me, that he wanted it from me, rather than Katharina or anyone else. I nodded.
Robert started kissing me again, and I closed my eyes. I felt him shifting the weight of his body onto me; I felt his skin against mine. Something was touching me down there, pressing against me. Something big and hard, and somewhere in my mind it registered that it was his manhood, still as erect as it had been when we stepped out of the water. I vaguely knew he was going to enter me with this, that he would put it where his finger had been before. I wasn’t sure how this could work, I couldn’t really imagine it to fit – it felt huge against me — but I did not think much anymore. I just wanted to feel it, feel him inside me. It was as if this was something I had been waiting for all my life. I opened my legs further, to help him, to let him inside.
He stopped kissing me, seemingly concentrating, and I felt his manhood at my entrance, slowly pushing inside. It seemed to go in with ease, and I felt almost frustrated by how slowly he was pushing into me. I wanted to feel him completely. Robert paused, and then, suddenly, with one hard thrust he was deep in me. A sharp pain tore through my body, making me gasp. My body went rigid. Robert held still then, and I felt the size of his manhood inside me, his breath on my face.
“Shh, Agnes. It only hurts for a moment. In a short while it will feel good, you will like it, I promise.”
And after a short pause, he added: “You love me, don’t you?”
I did. He is my brother, how can I not love him? He is the one that was always there for me. My handsome brother, who all the girls in the village admired. And I – I was his princess, I always had been. Not Katharina or anyone else, just me.
Robert was right. It did stop hurting very soon, and when he started moving inside me, first slowly, then faster and faster, once again my thoughts were all wiped out. At that moment, everything, the whole world, seemed simple. Everything was clear to me. I think I understood something I have forgotten since. Robert was everywhere, in me, above me, touching me, kissing me, until it felt like my whole body exploded.
Remembering it makes me tremble even now. I shouldn’t think of it, I shouldn’t remember. It makes me feel hot and cold, and they say I shouldn’t get excited, it is not good for my health.
I look up, into the darkness of the church. A small light is falling into the building through a colourful window high up. The monotonous mumble of prayers around me calms me down. I won’t think of Robert anymore. I am not supposed to remember, I am sure. But I can’t help it. I have to keep my heart and mind calm, they say. But does it really matter whether I get excited and sad, or not? It doesn’t make a difference. I know I don’t have long to live; I feel the weight of my body becoming more difficult to carry each day. The body that Robert called beautiful, the body that could feel such pleasures I never imagined existed – it feels heavy and inert now. It’s binding me to this earth, but not for long. I see how they look at me — like at someone who is dead already. I might just as well think of him, of how close we were. Of my happiness, and of what followed afterwards.
When the waves of pleasure inside me grew less strong, I found myself in the grass on the forest floor. Robert was sitting next to me, looking down at me. He leaned over me, to give me another kiss, on the cheek this time. I wanted to lie there forever. I wanted to look up into the green treetops, and into his eyes. Listen to the sounds of the river, and to his voice telling me I was beautiful. But he was in a hurry suddenly.
He was right, of course, I had to get home. They would already be missing me, I had to help Mother with all the work. With a sigh, I stood up and got dressed. It felt strange, to put clothes back on my body. I thought that they were rough somehow, and sticky, that it was better to be without clothes in the forest. I said so, and Robert laughed.
“You have always been a bit of a dreamer, Agnes. Hurry up, you have to get home.”
I hurried, and soon we left the forest. Robert returned to his work and I walked home. The air was as hot as it had been before, but the sun had disappeared: Thick clouds had appeared in the sky while we had been in the forest. I had walked a bit more than half of the way when the first raindrops fell. Then, all around me, there was thunder and lightning and thick, heavy rain.
The thunder was so loud I feared I would become deaf, and lightning tore the air, one flash after the other – as if the sky was angry, raging at me. It was at that moment I think I understood. It had been sin. What Robert and I had done, it had felt pure and good to me, but it wasn’t. I had done something horrible, and now there was anger all around me. My first thought was to run back to Robert — what if the lightning hit a tree under which he was seeking shelter from the rain? I had to see he was alright. I had to warn him.
But I knew I shouldn’t, I should hurry home, and my feet stayed on the way they were told to follow.
I was wet down to the bone when I reached the house. All I wanted to do was take off my wet clothes, rub my body dry, and hide under a thick blanket, but I couldn’t. There was too much work to do. The strong winds that had come with the storm had torn down part of the stable wall, and I had to help mother to repair it.
When evening came, the storm was over, but I felt like I could never get warm again.
Robert came home just when we had finished most of the work. He was almost dry as he had found good shelter from the rain. He didn’t look at me all evening, while mother and I prepared dinner and helped the smaller children get ready for bed. Only once, when no one was looking, he took me to the side. He held my arm again, like earlier, but his grip was stronger somehow. It hurt a bit.
“No one can ever know, Agnes.”
“No one, you understand? Not even the priest.”
I looked at him in surprise — I had understood that Mother or Father or any of the people from the village shouldn’t know, but how could he expect me to keep something quiet in confession? He pulled me closer to his face.
“Promise me that you won’t tell, ever. Do it for me, please. You said you love me.”
My eyes sank to the ground, I felt my face grow hot again.
“I promise, I won’t tell Not even the priest.”
My voice was so small, he probably had to read the words from my lips rather than hear them. It was enough for him though. Without another word, he turned around to go to his sleeping place.
I was scared of the next Sunday, it was still almost a week away, but what could I do? Throughout the walk home, when there had been thunder and lightning all around me, my only hope had been to confess, to be forgiven. I wasn’t sure what exactly I had done, or why it was bad, but I had understood it was, and it made my heart feel heavy. And now I couldn’t ever have this weight lifted off me.
However, a long time would pass before I went to church or saw the priest again. I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, and saw Mother sitting next to my bed with a wet piece of cloth in her hand to wipe my face. She said I had been screaming in my sleep and that I had a fever. I couldn’t leave the bed for many weeks. I wanted to, I tried many times. I was used to being outside every day, working. Lying in bed doing nothing made me feel useless.
The first days of my illness, Mother spent every free minute near my bed, and Father, who had been sick for years now, talked to me. Then Mother’s work started to occupy all of her time again, and Father grew quiet again. I had time to think, at least during the times my head didn’t feel like it was bursting into fire. Weeks went by. When I finally felt better and could leave the house again, I already knew I was with child.
I knew I couldn’t keep this a secret forever, so I had to tell them then, and I saw the fear in Robert’s face. His wedding with Katharina was drawing near. Again, he took me to the side, asking me not to spoil things for him. I didn’t — how could I? He is my brother, I love him. During my sickness I had had enough time to think. I understood more clearly what had happened, but I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t answer their questions about the where and when. I avoided everyone’s blaming looks. Strangely, Robert’s looks were similar to theirs. His eyes said it was my sin, not his.
I was weak, I stayed weak throughout my pregnancy, but the work doesn’t do itself just because you don’t have as much strength anymore. And often I was thankful if the day went by doing hard work, as long as it didn’t take me to the village where my growing belly soon started to get noticed.
Fall came and rain fell every day, so Robert didn’t work in the fields anymore. Longingly, I thought back to the time when I took him his lunch. My desire to be alone with him, to feel his fingers, his tongue, or even just his breath on my neck just one more time seemed to grow with every new day. There were always people around though. And if I caught him by himself somewhere, he always had somewhere to go. Still, life continued mainly the way it always had been. Only the whispering in the village grew louder.
And then, Katharina’s parents said they couldn’t give their daughter to live under one roof with a sinner like me, and that decided it – I was sent to this place, to have my child here, and live here, in the hope that a life of prayer would make me pure again. I missed my family, I missed our house, and the longing and the cold walls of the monastery made the sickness return. Since walking home that rainy day last summer, I have never been healthy again.
The winter was long and horrible. A few times I almost died. But I didn’t, I had to have the child, Robert’s child. They didn’t think I would survive the birth, but again I didn’t die. I had a beautiful baby boy, and I asked for him to be named after my brother. He was all my joy and hope, a sign that the world is still worth living in — for a few hours. Then they took him, so he could live in a place fit for a child to grow up, raised by a woman who would teach him to be a good person. Of course, someone like me can’t raise an innocent child. They explained, and I understood.
I still understand. I stare at my folded hands, and understand. I feel some warm air coming from outside, warming my tired body that feels so lost between these thick walls, and I understand. Something bad has happened, someone did something bad, and it can’t have been Robert — because he promised it wasn’t anything bad, so it wasn’t. I keep wracking my brain to try to understand what it was, then – what I did. I can’t think of anything, I am too tired.
Sometimes I still wish I could confess. They used to ask me every day, promising me I could keep my baby with me, that I might even go back to my family if I told them the whole story. I kept quiet, struggling to keep words and tears inside me.
I don’t have to carry the useless weight of my body much longer, I know that. Maybe a confession would make it lighter, but I can’t do that either. I promised my brother I wouldn’t tell.