Authors: Sarah Dunant
THE BIRTH OF VENUS
RANDOM HOUSE TRADE PAPERBACKS
O ONE HAD SEEN HER NAKED UNTIL HER DEATH. IT WAS A
rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into the drafting of this observance. Under the billowing folds of their habits each nun wore a long cotton shift, a garment they kept on always, even when they washed, so that it acted as a screen and partial drying cloth as well as a night shift. This shift they changed once a month (more in summer when the stagnant Tuscan air bathed them in sweat), and there were careful instructions as to correct procedure: how they should keep their eyes firmly fixed on the crucifix above their bed as they disrobed. If any did let their gaze stray downward, the sin was a matter for the confessional and therefore not for history.
There was a rumor that when Sister Lucrezia had first entered cloisters she had brought with her a certain vanity along with her vocation (her dowry to the church, it was said, included a lavishly decorated marriage chest filled with books and paintings fit for the attentions of the Sumptuary Police). But that was a time when the sisterhood had been prone to such accidents of abuse and luxury, and since the reforming of the convent the rules were stricter. None of the present inhabitants could remember that far back, save for the Reverend Mother, who had become a bride of Christ around the same time as Lucrezia but had long since turned her back on such worldliness. As for Sister Lucrezia herself, she never spoke of her past. In fact, in the last few years she had spoken very little at all. That she was pious there was no doubt. And as her bones stooped and glued together with age, so her piety and modesty had fused. In some ways it was natural. Even if she had been tempted to vanity, what surface could she have found to reflect herself in? The cloisters held no mirrors, the windows no glass; even the fishpond in the gardens had been designed with a fountain at its center sending out an endless shower of rain to prevent any possible narcissism in the water’s surface. Of course, even in the purest of orders some infringement is inevitable, and there had been times when a few of the more sophisticated novitiates had been caught surreptitiously considering their own portrait miniaturized in the pupils of their elders’ eyes. But more often than not this faded as the image of Our Lord loomed larger.
Sister Lucrezia seemed not to have looked directly at anyone for some years. Instead, she had spent increasing time at devotion in her cell, her eyes filming over with age and the love of God. As she became more ill, so she had been absolved from manual labor, and while others were working she could be found sitting in the gardens or in the herb plot, which she had sometimes tended. The week before her death she had been spotted there by the young novitiate Sister Carmilla, who had been alarmed by coming upon the elderly nun sitting not on the bench but stretched out upon the bare ground, her body under the habit distended by the tumor’s growth, her headdress cast aside, and her face tilted up to the late-afternoon rays of the sun. Such an undressing was a flagrant breach of regulations, but by then the disease had eaten so deep inside, and her pain was so evident, that the Reverend Mother could not bring herself to discipline her. Later, after the authorities had left and the body had finally been taken away, Carmilla would spread the echoing gossip of that encounter along the refectory table, telling how the nun’s unruly hair, freed from her wimple, had blazed out like a gray halo around her head, and how her face had been lit up with happiness—only the smile playing upon her lips had been one more of triumph than of beatification.
That last week of her life, as the pain flowed in ever deeper waves, dragging her away in its undertow, the corridor outside her cell began to smell of death: a fetid aroma as if her flesh were already rotting away. The tumor had grown so tender by then that she could no longer sit up for its size. They brought in church physicians, even a doctor from Florence (flesh could be exposed in the cause of the alleviation of suffering), but she had refused them all and shared her agony with no one.
The lump remained not only covered but hidden away. The summer was upon them by then, and the convent simmered by day and sweltered by night, but still she lay under the blanket fully clothed. No one knew how long the disease had been eating into her flesh. The volume of their habit was designed to hide any hint of shape or female curve. Five years before, in the greatest scandal to hit the nunnery since the bad old days, a fourteen-year-old novitiate from Siena had concealed nine months of growth so successfully that she was only found out when the kitchen Sister came upon traces of the afterbirth in the corner of the wine cellar and, fearing it was the entrails of some half-devoured animal, nosed around till she found the tiny bloated body weighted down by a bag of flour in a vat of Communion wine. Of the girl herself there was no sign.
When questioned after she had first fainted during Matins a month earlier, Sister Lucrezia confessed that the lump in her left breast had been there for some time, its malignant energy pulsing against her skin like a small volcano. But right from the start she was adamant that there was nothing to be done for it. After a meeting with the Reverend Mother, which caused the latter to be late for Vespers, the matter was not referred to again. Death was, after all, a temporary staging post in a longer journey and one that in a house of God was as much to be welcomed as feared.
In the last hours she grew crazy with pain and fever. The strongest herb concoctions gave her no release. Where she had first borne her suffering with fortitude, now she could be heard howling through the night like an animal, a desperate sound that frightened awake the younger nuns in the cells close by. Along with the howling came sporadic words, yelled out in staccato bursts or whispered like lines from a frenzied prayer: Latin, Greek, and Tuscan all stuck together in a thick verbal glue.
She was finally taken by God one morning as another suffocating day was dawning. The priest who had come to deliver last rites had gone and she was alone with one of the nursing Sisters, who recounted how, at the moment the soul departed, Lucrezia’s face had miraculously changed, the lines etched by pain melting away, leaving the skin smooth, almost translucent: an echo of the tender young nun who had first arrived at the convent doors some thirty years before.
The death was formally announced at Matins. Because of the heat (the temperature over the last few days had turned the butter liquid in the kitchen), it was thought necessary to inter the corpse with the day. It was the custom of the convent to give any departing Sister the dignity of a clean body as well as a spotless soul and to clothe her in a bright new habit: a wedding dress for the bride finally united with the Godhead husband. This ritual was performed by Sister Magdalena, who ran the pharmacy and administered the medicines (given special dispensation to witness flesh for this most divine of occasions) aided by a younger nun, Sister Maria, who would eventually take on the job herself. Together they would wash and dress the body, then lay it out in the chapel, where it would remain for a day while the rest of the convent paid its respects. But on this occasion their services were not required. Sister Lucrezia, it appeared, had made a special request before she died, asking that her body be left untouched, in the habit in which she had served her Lord for all these years. It was, to say the least, unusual—there was talk among the sisters as to whether it might qualify as disobedience—but the Reverend Mother had sanctioned it and it would have gone unquestioned had it not been for the news, also received that morning, of an outbreak of plague in the village nearby.
The convent was separated from the hamlet of Loro Ciufenna by a strenuous horse ride, though the pestilence matched the speed of any horse’s hooves. The first sign had apparently appeared three days before when a young farmer’s boy had been stricken with a fever and an eruption of boils that had spread all over his body, growing immediately full of pus and fury. He died two days later, by which time his younger brother and the baker nearby were infected. It was learned that the boy had been at the convent the week before, delivering flour and vegetables. The suggestion was that the Devil’s illness had come from there and the Sister who had now died was its carrier. While the Reverend Mother had no time for ignorant gossip and could work out the logistics of infection rates as fast as the next woman, it was her business to keep on good terms with the village, on which the convent depended for many things, and it was an undeniable fact that Sister Lucrezia had died in fever as well as pain. If she had been a carrier, it was a widely held belief that the pestilence would live on in her clothes, only to escape through the earth later and contaminate again. Having lost eight Sisters to an outbreak some years before, the Reverend Mother, mindful not only of her establishment’s reputation but also her duty to her flock, regretfully overrode Lucrezia’s last wish and ordered that her garments be removed and burned and the corpse disinfected before being consigned immediately to holy ground.
Sister Lucrezia’s body lay stretched out on the bed. The delay meant that the rigidity of death was already infecting her limbs. The two Sisters worked nervously fast, wearing pruning gloves from the orchard, the only protection the convent could offer against contamination. They unpinned the wimple and pulled the material away from the neck. The dead nun’s hair was flat with sweat though her face remained peachy serene, a reminder of that afternoon in the herb garden. They unfastened the habit at the shoulders and cut it open down the front, peeling away the material, crusted with the sweat of suffering. They were especially careful of the area around the tumor, where the habit and then the shift underneath had fused fast to the skin. During her illness this part of her body had been so painful that Sisters passing in the cloister had stepped away from her in case they might brush against her and cause her to cry out. It was strange to find her so silent now as they ungraciously tugged at the half-soaked mound of cloth and flesh, the size of a small melon and pulpy to the touch. It didn’t come easily. In the end Sister Magdalena, who had a strength in her bony fingers belying her years, gave a hefty yank and the material ripped off the body, bringing with it what felt like the whole growth itself.
The old nun let out a gasp as the mass of fat tissue came away in her gloved hand. Looking back down at the body, her sense of wonder increased. Where the tumor had been the surface of the skin was healed: no wound, no blood or pus, no discharge at all. Sister Lucrezia’s fatal malignancy had left her body unscathed. This was surely a miracle. And had it not been for the unbearable stench in the small cell they might have fallen to their knees there and then in recognition of God’s magnanimity. But the fact was that the smell seemed to grow stronger with the tumor released. So it was that they turned their attention to the malignancy itself.
Freed from the body, it sat in the Sister’s hand, a sack of distended growth, oozing black liquid out of one side like rotting offal, as if the good Sister’s very insides had somehow leaked their way out of her body into the tumor. Magdalena stifled a low moan. The sack slipped through her fingers and splatted onto the stones beneath, bursting apart on impact and sending a shower of liquid and gore across the floor. Inside the mess they could make out shapes now: black coils and gobbets of blood, intestines, organs—offal indeed. Though it was many years since the older nun had worked in the kitchen, she had seen enough dissected carcasses to know the difference between human and animal remains.
The reverend Sister Lucrezia had died not, it seemed, from a tumor but from a self-applied bladder of pig’s entrails.
The revelation would have been shocking enough without what came next. It was Maria who spotted it: the silver streak on the corpse’s skin curving up over the edge of the shoulder, growing gradually thicker over the collarbone until it disappeared underneath what remained of the undershirt. This time the younger nun took the initiative, cutting open the shift and tearing it in a single rip until the corpse was revealed naked on the bed.
At first they could make no sense of what was before their eyes. Lucrezia’s exposed flesh was white, like the marble skin of the Madonna in the side altar of the chapel. The body was old, the stomach and breasts slackened by age, but with little excess fat, which meant it had retained enough of its figure for the image to have kept its proportions. As the painted line thickened at the collarbone it gained more shape and substance, rounding itself out from a tail into the body of a snake, silver-green in color and so lifelike that by the time it had slid its way over the breast you might swear you could see the movement of its muscles rippling under the skin. Close to the right nipple it curled itself around the darkened areola before sliding down the breast and plunging across the stomach. Then, as it dipped toward her groin, the shape flattened out in readiness for the serpent’s head.
Age had defoliated what would once have been a thicket of pubic hair into a straggle of wiry curls, so that what would have been invisible save to the most insistent seeker was now made plain. At the point where the snake’s body became its head, instead of the reptilian skull was the softer, rounder shape of a man’s face: the head thrown back, the eyes closed as if in rapture, and the tongue, snake-long still, darting out from his mouth downward toward the opening of Sister Lucrezia’s sex.