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The Gift

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In the deep of the night when she cannot sleep Anne walks. Through the dim-lit hallways, her light step echoing on the well-swept stone, she measures the boundaries of her new kingdom. Scullery, dining hall, common room, the dormitory for the novitiates, the narrow doors of the nuns’ cells. In the chapel she pauses before the candle always kept burning on the altar, crosses herself, starts to kneel and then rises again. She walks out and tests the bar across the door, lays her hand against the firm comfort of the oak. Her kingdom is secure.

She is not a queen in exile. In her youth she lived in France long enough that it feels like home, more welcoming perhaps than England ever was. And she is not a queen. Henry’s men saw to that – pre-contract, consanguinity, all the words that mean nothing but what Henry says they mean. He is the king of words as well as hearts and minds and men. With those words Henry did not end their marriage but erased it, and Anne did not fight him. When offered a choice between fire and the sword or this small domain, when offered a choice between fire and the sword or anything, who would embrace that death?

And after all, Anne is content in her new life. Perhaps not completely happy, not the most happy – never that again – but she has her own books, and no one else here need know what is in them. She has the small business of the convent that can swell to fill her days. On occasion the wind blows a man to her door, a former countryman or a courtier from Paris, and she listens to his compliments and his gossip and offers a cool hand to kiss, nothing more. She has the low-voiced company of women and the stern, ancient rhythms of prayer and one other thing and anyone who knew her in the wild triumph of her court days would laugh to hear it, but she is content in her new life. She is content with life.

She enters the chapel again and kneels this time, to bow her head in gratitude. Some might say she should pray for Henry. He gave her life, though not as a gift. He threw her this life, as one throws alms to a beggar, without lowering one’s eyes to see him, without lowering one’s mind to think of him. Still, to a starving man those coins are precious, and Anne’s life is precious to her still. But she will not pray for Henry.

She wondered, at first, what had prompted Henry to change his mind, to offer her sanctuary across the sea. Knowing his fury, she had thought he would rather have painted himself with her blood and taken his new wife atop her corpse, before offering her mercy. Was it her father who had pled for her, prostrating himself before his angry monarch to save his daughter? Or perhaps those men she had helped to make, Cromwell and Cranmer with their endless words. Perhaps they had put those words to use for her, had wound and woven Henry around with them until Henry sighed and softened. But even before the whispers made their way across the sea to her, she knew the truth. She had lived too long in the chivalrous courts of men to expect them to save her.

Anne bows her head and lights a candle for Jane.

She had gone on her knees to the king, they said. In the moment of her greatest victory, in defiance of the ambitious men who advised and instructed her, she had asked for Anne’s life as a wedding gift. Henry had stormed and raged and Jane bent her head against the battering waves until finally Henry raised her up and kissed her and called her the sweetest-hearted woman in the world, an angel sent to him from heaven, and the men around her breathed a sigh of relief and Jane stood silent and serene in the circle of Henry’s arms. Anne knew that rage and those arms. Anne knew the risk that had been taken, she who had risked more than anyone had believed possible, and had lost almost more than anyone could bear.

Jane sleeps in Anne’s bed and sits on Anne’s throne and once, long ago, Anne had thought there would be nothing more bitter than to see another woman in her place. Now Anne has been anointed by an archbishop and has borne a princess and has watched five men walk to their deaths in her name. Whenever bitterness threatens, Anne raises her hand to her throat, and then to her heart and feels it beating, Jane’s gift in Anne’s body. Then she prays, that Jane’s own body might save her, that Jane might bear a son.

In the deep of the night Anne walks the dim-lit hallways, remarking her well-kept rooms, her well-ordered domain. She hears the wind beat at the door, held at bay by the strong wood. She hears the rustle and mumble of the sleeping girls in the dormitory. In her own room is her second gift, more precious to Anne than her own life, and Anne loves her life as do only those who have almost lost it.

Elizabeth lies rosy-cheeked with sleep in Anne’s bed, her thumb in her mouth, and Anne bows her head and buries her face in the child’s curls. Henry threw her away with his marriage and Anne caught her, clasping her desperately to her heart, as a starving man grabs greedily at a scrap from a rich man’s table. Here in her small kingdom Anne keeps her daughter close and safe.

It is more than a gift.

In the deep of the night Anne listens to her child breathe and her own heart beat and hopes that Jane knows such happiness, that she knows some happiness. Anne prays for it.