Amsterdam, November 1531
I have no one like him, who will be genuinely anxious for your welfare…Phil 2:20
After tossing and turning all night, Anna was ready to get to work. It was too early to visit Maeyken, so she grabbed a bucket of water and got down on her knees on the doorstep. She scrubbed until it was clean enough to use as a trencher. If only her conscience were this clean.
Maeyken’s house was quiet and still as Anna slipped inside the unlatched back door a little later. She tiptoed across the checkered tile floor, as pale morning sunlight slanted into the shadowy kitchen. In the adjoining bedroom, Maeyken snored, with the tiny infant snuggled against her cheek. The frilly night cap on Maeyken’s tousled head rested askew, and with gentle fingers Anna touched the golden strands of her friend’s hair.
She stood back, both admiring and coveting the picture of new motherhood. If she did her duty to the church and the state, this too-perfect little world would be destroyed. All she needed to do was go to the town hall right now with her story, and the constable would arrive before Maeyken awoke. But how could it be right to arrest Maeyken? She hadn’t done anything wrong, except missing church and refusing to baptize the baby. But wouldn’t God punish Maeyken for these omissions? The priests claimed so, and who was Anna to think otherwise? He was a God that would not be scorned, and His wrath was terrible. Anna crossed herself.
An image formed in her mind of the rough constable arriving with his sharp steel sword and his chains and his voice of doom, and then poor Maeyken quivering in chains. She should not have come here, sympathy for her friend was preventing her from doing the right thing. But right for who? There could be no justice in arresting a new mother, especially not Maeyken. Anna remembered there had been a woman back in Germany who had been chained to the table leg, making her a prisoner in her own home, while allowing her to continue with her household duties. Maybe this would be the only punishment for Maeyken if she reported her. Still, Anna could not do it. Why should her friend be dragged from the childbed and put in chains for refusing to baptize her baby? Anna didn’t agree with the actions of her friend, yet she found she didn’t have the heart to destroy this little family, rules or no rules.
But what if Anna was arrested for her part in this deception? Was it worth the risk to herself? There was no answer and no way out, but still, she could never forgive herself if she caused the execution of her only real friend in the world. No matter how strongly she felt about the rightness of the Catholic church, or how dire the punishment to herself, this was where she put her foot down.
There was only one thing left to do. Maeyken must be persuaded to forget her fanatical new ideas. Didn’t she realize the baby would also be cast into purgatory if it died before receiving baptism? Anna shivered as she remembered seeing those unhappy graves set apart in a place reserved for the damned. Of course, the damned could not be buried alongside the blessed. Imagine those poor infants sharing a spot in unconsecrated ground with criminals and witches.
No, her little namesake must never rest there.
Maeyken stirred, and gave a start to see Anna standing at her bedside. Her eyes flew open. “Anna! What a surprise!” Maeyken croaked. “I didn’t think you were coming back.”
“I had to come back, Maeyken, for good or for ill.”
A troubled look flitted across Maeyken’s face. “I can trust you, can I not?” She struggled to sit up, and Anna extended a hand to help. She ignored the question for the moment.
“Should I make you some bread soup? Or some ginger tea?” Anna offered. “Then we can talk while you eat.”
Maeyken nodded as she picked up her infant daughter and held her close to feed. “Be sure to make some for yourself.”
When Anna returned with a steaming bowl of bread and hot milk, Maeyken was lying down again, with the baby struggling against its firmly bound cocoon. Baby Anneken put her head back as far as she could, wailing with her tiny pink-gummed mouth wide open.
“I’ve had another tiring night,” Maeyken admitted, with fatigue in her voice. “This baby is a hungry little thing, and with Adriaen gone, I hardly slept at all.”
Anna started guiltily. “You should have sent the maid over to fetch me. I could have rocked the baby for you.”
Maeyken frowned as she spooned the soup into her mouth with a thin, white hand. “Anna, you must understand why I could not do that.” She took another spoonful and leaned back on her pillows. Maeyken had never looked this ill before. The usual sparkle in her blue eyes was gone, and her fair hair tangled limply around her head, a fact not hidden by her cap. The dingy gray woollen robe did nothing to improve her color.
“Maeyken, I want to apologize for my actions yesterday. Forgive me, I did not handle the shock very well.” There, it was out.
“I do forgive you, from the bottom of my heart. These trying times will test many friendships, I am sure. I just couldn’t keep this secret from you any longer. I trust you to do the right thing.”
A heavy burden slipped off Anna’s shoulders, although she was certainly not worthy of any trust Maeyken put in her. At least Maeyken was not angry with her. She picked up the squalling baby. Anneken was surprisingly strong and protested noisily as Anna quickly changed her and bundled her up in linen swaddling.
“This one will be strong-willed, I do believe.” She walked the floor, murmuring to the baby. “She will need lots of love.” Anneken stopped crying, and with contented little sighs she slowly fell asleep.
“Oh Anna. I often think you should be the one to have babies instead of me. You have a real touch with them.” Anna quickly turned her face away from Maeyken and blinked away a tear. “I don’t want to have babies instead of you,” she said, “I want us both to have a husband and children.”
With a touch of bitterness, Anna shook her head. She was more likely to be drowned as a witch than bear children. So far, no man had offered for her hand and she couldn’t blame them. One glance at her reflection in the looking-glass told her why. Her face was narrow and long, with large, murky gray eyes and a nose that was too long by an inch. Ugly, even if Maeyken didn’t think so. To her sorrow, she had long ago realized that she possessed none of the coyness that men seemed to adore. She was just a stiff old spinster whom nobody would ever love. Every day she must struggle against self-pity, bitterness and envy, something she failed at far too often, and which brought her continually to her knees confessing to Father Hendricks.
“Don’t despair,” Maeyken said. “I believe the day will come when you have your own family.”
“I hope you’re right.” With a sigh, Anna settled into the woven-straw nursing chair at Maeyken’s bedside, the sleeping babe in her arms. She swayed gently, reveling in the feel of the soft body next to hers, imagining it was her own child. What if it was hers and Adriaen’s? Anna jerked her head up. Where had that shameful thought come from? Her face grew hot, and she was glad Maeyken had dozed off again.
A short time later, the trill of children’s voices trickled down the stairs. The maid, Janneken, got them dressed and fed, while the happy chatter of children’s voices filled the kitchen. Janneken had been clattering around since had Anna arrived at the house, and now the aroma of baking bread wafted into the bedroom. When Maeyken awoke, Anna opened the door to the kitchen and let the children in to see their mother and the baby.
“Is Vater home now?” Trijntgen inquired, skipping to her mother’s side. Shy Bettke, just three, stayed in the doorway of the bedroom, while Dirk crawled in on all fours and pulled himself up at Anna’s knees. With their fair hair and blue eyes, and dressed in white gowns, the children resembled little angels. Only the baby had inherited Adriaen’s dark hair and eyes.
Maeyken glanced to the window, unable to hide her concern. Adriaen should have been home before dawn or shortly after, and it was mid-morning already. “No, he’s not back yet. Why don’t you go sit on the doorstep and watch for him? I am certain he will be home soon.” After taking an adoring peek at the new addition to the family, Trijntgen did as her mother asked, and went to play a game with pebbles on the doorstep.
“Now we must talk,” Anna said, though Maeyken was rubbing her eyes which were still heavy with sleep. Anna rocked faster. “How did you and Adriaen come by your misguided beliefs? Surely you do not intend to stick with this fanatical sect.”
Maeyken sighed deeply. “Anna, I am but a simple housewife, but I know this is not a fanatical sect. The Doopgesinde desire only to live by the Scriptures. If only I could read, I would show you exactly what the Bible says,” Maeyken glanced at a shelf on the wall, and Anna noticed for the first time the thick volume resting there. Anna could read a little, but she didn’t offer to hand the Book to her friend and read to her. Reading the Bible was the sacred duty of the clergy, who were consecrated by God to do so, not for laymen and women.
“At the meetings when the Brethren read,” Maeyken continued softly, “my heart becomes filled with peace and I know it is the truth. No matter what happens, I am ready to lay down my life if need be, and suffer, as Jesus did for my sake.”
Anna stared at her friend. Doopgesinde. ‘Baptism-minded’. She remembered that her own family hadn’t liked being called Anabaptists, or Re-baptizers. Their baptism as babies they had called worthless, as if it had never been, so they could not be re-baptized. Their baptism as adult believers was their first true baptism. Even then it was only a symbol of the blood of Jesus washing away their sins, the water itself having no power. The disturbing thing about it was that it did somewhat ring true, and Anna did not want it to ring true. She wanted everyone to stop the upheaval and live in peace, as before.
A strong premonition came to Anna that she was too late to prevent her friend from continuing her course towards a certain early death at the hands of the Court officers. After Maeyken faced the wrath of the officers, she would then have to face the wrath of God.
“Who gave you these ideas? And when did you see these people without telling me?” She frowned, not comprehending how Maeyken reached this life-changing decision without Anna hearing about it.
“You remember when Adriaen’s brother, Joachim, was here for a few days, about a month ago?”
Anna remembered well enough, but she was shy of strange men and had made herself scarce at Maeyken’s house during that time. She had made the mistake of falling in love once, and it had been a mistake. By now, she knew better, and there was no point in battling against the inevitable. After the first brief glimpse of Adriaen’s handsome brother, she ran into her own house and hid there until he left.
“What about him?”
“He is one of the preachers for the Brethren, and he goes from place to place spreading the word. We melted many a candle in the night while he taught us from the New Testament. One night, the believers even met in our barn.” Her eyes turned soft in remembrance. “That’s the night Adriaen and I were baptized.”
Anna nearly dropped the baby. “You mean you have already been baptized by the Anabaptists? Is this not a bit sudden? Maeyken, did you even think about what you were doing?” Her feet hit the floor with a noisy thump. “I should not even be here talking to you! My life and my freedom are in danger as much as your own. What if you are arrested? What about the children? What if you are executed? I do not understand.”
A couple of tears slid down Maeyken’s cheeks. “I know you don’t understand. You are as solidly Catholic as a priest.” She sniffled, and Anna handed her a clean cloth. “And yet, more than one priest has left his papist beliefs and joined the new religion. A monk in Germany and a priest in Switzerland awakened the world to the need for change.”
“Oh yes. My parents were full of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, and those two are bad enough. But even they don’t tolerate adult baptism or the refusal to use the sword.” Anna looked at Maeyken hopefully. “If you’re not happy with the Roman Catholic church, couldn’t you join the Lutherans, or the Reformed? This group you’ve joined is so radical!”
“No, Anna,” Maeyken answered. “The clergy are more concerned with their earthly lives than anyone’s spiritual life. They spend their time gambling and drinking and worse. Also, the true Christian cannot kill, and neither Luther nor Zwingli wants to stop fighting wars or stop executing those who oppose them. Maybe when I’m stronger, you could consider going with me to a meeting of the Brethren and see the difference for yourself?”
“Me?” Anna’s head jerked up. Her startled voice woke the baby, who started fussing again. “Me? Go to a heretic meeting? If I did what I should, I would race to the town hall and bring the bailiff!”
“What is stopping you?” Maeyken’s voice was quiet and sad. “If you really believe that, I am ready to bear whatever God allows. As it stands, the law demands of you that you do it.”
“Oh Maeyken…” Anna joggled the whimpering baby. “No, I could never report you. I know the law, but report you, my best friend? No. I cannot be the cause of your arrest, and much less of your death.” Anna rose from the chair with the baby in her arms and walked the floor again. “But what will you do? I cannot stomach the thought of causing your arrest, but someone else may well do it for me.” A frown creased her forehead. “You can’t hide a baby forever. Can’t you just have her baptized and save your life?”
Maeyken sank weakly onto her pillows. “No, Anna. Adriaen and I have turned our lives over to the wisdom of God and wish to do only what is written in the Scriptures. Nowhere does Jesus desire infants to be baptized. He said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ They are innocent. Baptism is for believers. Jesus also said, ’If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Anna opened her mouth, but words refused to come. She had never heard of this. Few people she knew were good at denying themselves. For some reason, Father Hendricks came to mind. She wondered if he had ever denied himself anything in his life. Quickly she crossed herself. Where did that unholy thought come from? She swept the picture of his bejeweled and fleshy person out of her mind.
Maeyken held out her arms for the fretting baby. “She must still be hungry.” Anna handed her over and kept on pacing the floor. “Who taught your so-called preachers all this? Why would your group of merchants and burghers better understand the Scriptures than the universities, or even the pope? They must be interpreting the Scriptures wrongly.”
Maeyken sighed, her voice a mere whisper. “God teaches us through the Scriptures, and He alone is the authority. It is a simple faith. Many of the priests have never read the Bible, you know. We can’t really trust them to teach us the truth.”
Anna’s jaw dropped. She twisted her head from left to right, as if checking for the devil crouching in a corner. What terrible curse might fall upon her for listening to this sacrilege? She backed towards the door.
“I’m tiring you out. Why don’t I take Anneken to the kitchen when you’ve finished with her, and you get some rest?” Maeyken nodded wearily.
The maid was chopping onions near the kitchen window, and the strong odor brought tears to Anna’s eyes. Or were the tears for something else?
It was mid-morning and she ought to be at home doing her own housework. However, if Adriaen wasn’t home yet, chances were, neither was Simon. Why had they not returned? Simon had told her they might stay the night, but she assumed they would be back early in the morning. Something must have happened to delay them, and she had dark suspicions about where they had gone.
She darted a quick look outside. The three children were playing in the dirt yard, waiting patiently for their father to come home. Trijntgen was leading her younger siblings in a game of hide-and-go-seek. Their childish voices and pattering feet brought a pang of sorrow to her heart. What was their future?
When the sun was high in the sky, the men had still not returned. Anna stayed for the main meal of soup and fresh brown bread, and carried a tray of food to Maeyken, who needed a few more days before she could get out of bed. Her face was even whiter than it had been in the morning. She kept tilting her head to listen, clearly desperate to hear her husband’s footsteps on the stone path.
It became obvious, yet unspoken, that Simon and Adriaen had gone to a secret Anabaptist meeting, and Maeyken had good reason to be worried. If Anna’s capacity for shock weren’t already full, she would be shocked about Simon. As it was, it all fit together. The evening was a strange time to go visiting, unless there was a secret, forbidden nocturnal meeting. Had the two men been discovered?
Anna was not surprised to see that Maeyken ate very little. She managed a few sips of soup, then laid down her spoon. For the first time, there was an awkward silence between the two young women, and the only reason Anna stayed was because Maeyken seemed to be too tired to care for her baby.
As the afternoon wore on, the anxious mother alternated between taking short restless naps, listlessly feeding Anneken, and straining her ears for the sound of footsteps. Maeyken’s lips moved in prayer, her face pinched and gray, ‘Father, Thy will be done.’
Towards evening, the sound of horse’s hoofs striking on stone struck terror into their hearts, and they looked at each other with eyes as large as saucers. The only people who travelled with horses were the officers. Should they flee? There was nowhere to go, even if Maeyken had the strength.