To Be a Pilgrim

by Ellen Evers

She was weary. The journey had been hard and overly long. The days of heavy unseasonable rain had muddied the roads, leaving deep puddles treacherous to the horses. Pulling her hood more tightly around her face, she bowed her head to ward off the breeze that chilled her to the bone. She longed for rest but knew that she had to endure more hours of this misery before their destination was reached.

Far ahead her husband William rode with the men, his figure just discernable in the murky greyness. He'd deigned to accompany her on this pilgrimage to Walsingham, and she was grateful as she knew she was too fearful to have undertaken this without his guidance. She prayed that she would not have to lie with him tonight; in some of the inns he had paid for a private room where he would take her roughly. She closed her eyes as she remembered the joyless coupling; the smell of horse, sweat and ale as he lay heavily as she did her wifely duty.

The inn was shabby but welcome and there were no separate rooms that night. The men drank heartily; she could see them through the smoke in the room although the sconces on the walls barely cast any light. Wrapping the still damp cloak around herself in preparation for sleep, she curled her aching body and drifted  off

I don't know what woke me, my coughing or Jonathan's heavy hand on my shoulder.

'Wake up Ellie,'  he continued to shake me, 'why are you down here on the floor?'

I coughed, and my head spun. The smell of wood smoke was choking me. My eyes stung and streamed for a minute. Was there a fire? I realized I was in the comer  of our bedroom with the duvet wrapped around me. Struggling to sit up I managed to control my lungs. Still rubbing my eyes which stung like crazy I slowly came back to earth.

'What's with sleeping in the comer?'

I had no idea. The dream was as vivid as a hallucination. Had I been on the funny fags? No, those days were far behind me. I wobbled to my feet. 

I had to shower. I couldn't rid myself of the stench of smoke and that circus smell of stabled animals. Hair wet, but body warm in my dressing gown, I curled up on the sofa where Jonathan waited with my soothing chamomile tea.

'Want to talk about it?'

I shrugged, uncertain now that the dream was receding. It all sounded so daft, but I couldn't get over the assault on my senses. I tried to explain how it felt as if I'd been there...wherever there was.

I got up, irritated and saw that the laptop was still active. More research, more obscure web sites. He was obsessed. No wonder I was having these hallucinations. He was writing a book about women in pilgrimages in the middle ages and it had taken over our lives.

Jonathan came over, hugged me and looked down from his lofty height. 'It's getting to you our journey, and that's why your dreams are so real. It's our own pilgrimage and a good thing. It's nothing to worry about. Come to bed.'

Pilgrimage? Grand title indeed for what was the last clarion call for our marriage. In simple terms my husband of five years was taking me, his barren wife, to Our Lady in Walsingham in the belief that she would help me to conceive. We have a bargain. We try this and if I'm not pregnant in six months we seek medical help. Nothing we can't overcome says Jonathan.

I suppose it's not unusual to go on a pilgrimage, because religious people do it all the time don't they? And Jonathan is very religious and very spiritual, not surprising when you know that he was a priest. Notice that I say was because thanks to me he left the Church. He's twice my age and I was only seventeen, when we met. I was working the streets and well acquainted with drugs. Although it sounds cheesy, we fell in love and he saved me. 

Jonathan was my way back.

He gave it all up for me and even now my stomach squirms when I think of it. His family was so upset they won't even speak to him. They might come around one day but  he says it doesn't matter as I'm the only family he needs; well until he has children of his own which he realizes now he's always wanted. 

Except I can't get pregnant.

I've long since given up the monthly shake of the head. After a while we just didn't talk about it, until Jonathan came up with the idea of Walsingham. He was excited and animated when he told me all about the pilgrims of old, especially the women who experienced God knows what on the journeys they took. He told me all about the Shrine and how women visited to ask for help to get a baby. We never discuss the life I had on the streets and maybe, just maybe, I wrecked my body, so a child couldn't  grow there. Perhaps this is our punishment.

The rain-soaked band of travelers had stopped outside Ely Cathedral, craning their necks to look in wonder at the looming towers. They had shelter for the night with the monks but there was sickness in the party. Margery's coughing was   worsening.

'Agnes' commanded her husband, 'stay far from Mistress Margery Kempe lest you too sicken. ' She bowed her head in assent but feared that it was already too late. Margery leaned from her palfrey and grabbed her hand. 'Mistress Hignall, good shelter and hot food will raise our spirits and with God's mercy we will tomorrow feel stronger. ' Agnes smiled with gratitude and hoped she was right.

I opened my eyes and couldn't believe I was standing barefoot in the garden under sodden dripping trees. I was wearing my waterproof with my hood tied tightly over my long black skirt. I could tell even in the half- light that my feet were filthy, so I'd been there a while. My throat ached, as did my head. Then I remembered - Agnes Hignall.

'What on earth are you doing out here?' Jonathan dazzled me with a flashlight. 'Come in, you'll catch your death,' he urged, putting his arm around my waist.

'Agnes Hignall. She's got a name. Agnes Hignall.' I muttered it like a   mantra.

I barely remembered the hot shower or Jonathan dressing me in pyjamas and my dressing gown. His face was concerned and for once I could see that he looked his age.

'Ellie, sweetheart, we'll go to Walsingham tomorrow and then call it a day. I don't like the way this is affecting you. You've never sleep walked    before, have you?'

I shook my head.

'I  want to find out about Agnes Hignall.'

He frowned. 'Not a person I've come across. Any other names?1

I racked my woolly brain. 'Margery, I think, Margery Kempe... !' I felt triumphant.

He smiled, stroking my hair. 'I recognize the name of Margery Kempe. Sleep first. I'll do some research after Walsingham.'

Despite the night's events we were awake before dawn, impatient now that our journey was nearing its end. The weather reflected my mood; grey drizzle with the likelihood of heavier downpours, just like the pilgrims had suffered.

Ours was the only car in the car park; the silence was unnerving. We crunched our way over the gravel, Jonathan holding my hand tightly but saying nothing.  It was so  quiet, so dark, so otherworld.

As we entered the church, all my senses were assailed; the smell of incense overpowered me; the buzz of muted sound, indistinct but insidious; the brightness of the stain glass windows; Our Lady gazed steadily at us with the wisdom of the world in her eyes. As the church spun, everything went black.

Agnes and Margery rode closely together as they reached the outskirts of Walsingham. William rode back to hurry her and to remind her that he had made their offerings and now they could enter the holy place to pray. Her throat tightened, still raw from the fever and her stomach clenched. This was the time. She must not show her fear; she must overcome her failure to produce a child.

She knelt and gazed upon the Shrine hearing the melodic tones of the monks as they all prayed. 'Forgive me Mother and listen to my plea,' she whispered as her husband pressed closer, urging her to repeat her request, increasing her panic.

'Give her some air!' The voice was unknown but full of authority. I sensed I was sitting against a wall and when I opened my eyes I was confronted with a clergyman and my worried husband. I struggled to my feet, embarrassed. 'I'm okay.'  The stranger   looked at Jonathan and shrugged, moving discreetly away.

'I'll be fine,' I managed, only wanting to get this over with. Jonathan led me gently towards the altar, found kneelers for us and settled to pray. Now I was here my mind was blank; all I could think about was those women and the hardship they endured to make it to Walsingham.

How long we were there I couldn't say but at last Jonathan stood up on creaky knees and pulled me up beside him. Our journey was complete.

Emotionally drained, we left for our cottage where Jonathan insisted I went to bed and I didn't argue. Thank God I was too shattered to dream and the next thing I knew it was evening and Jonathan was bringing me a cup of tea. He smiled benignly.

'It's taken a while, but I think I've found Agnes and Margery.' I was fully awake now and sat up quickly.

'Margery Kempe was a very famous pilgrim and even wrote an autobiography which is well documented.'

I stayed silent but mentally urged him on. Please no lecture Jonathan, not now. 'She mentions Agnes as travelling with her to Walsingham escorted by  her

husband,' he continued, 'Agnes had a son, but he died when he was three. Her husband blamed her and when she failed to get pregnant,' he gave me a sideways glance, 'Walsingham  was going to be her last chance.'

No wonder she was so fearful.

'Did she,' my throat was dry, 'get pregnant?' He put his arms around me.

'Margery Kempe mentioned in her autobiography, just in passing really, that she met up with Agnes the following year when she, Agnes that is, made a special journey to Walsingham to say thanks for the safe delivery of a son.' I could feel the tears trickling down my face with relief.

I'm reliving all of this as I sit with my hands on the bump that is to be Agnes Margery. When our daughter is old enough, I will tell her all the things we have had to overcome to ensure her existence.

Her entry into this world has been part of other journeys, not easy ones but then pilgrimages are not supposed to be easy, are they?