Amsterdam, November 1531
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come... Heb 13:14
When Anna woke up, she was shocked to see thin rays of sunlight poking through the slits in the shutters. Morning already! How long had she slept? She jumped to her feet, and her hand shook badly as she reached out to touch a much-too-quiet Maeyken. Panic rose within her. Why was Maeyken so cold? She placed a hand on the unmoving lips. Dear Father in Heaven, let there be breath! But no flutter of breath warmed Anna’s fingers. She probed her friend’s neck, desperate to find a pulse, while her own very-alive heart thudded in her chest.
“Maeyken! Wake up!”
It could not be true. Maeyken’s life could not have faded away while Anna was sleeping. Anna couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. As the truth sank in, a heavy stone seemed to settle in her stomach. She had failed to stay awake during her friend’s last moments. She steadied herself on the bed frame with one hand, and gazed at the white face, the peaceful smile, the bluish, translucent eyelids. Finally, she leaned forward and covered Maeyken with the sheets.
The tears froze in Anna’s eyes and refused to fall, and through the pain, a numbing despair took over. All those prayers she had said asking Mary and the saints to help her had done no good, neither had it availed anything to pray like an Anabaptist. God had seen fit to remove Maeyken from her life, and she must accept it as Gods wil. Why hadn’t God taken her instead of this much-loved, much-needed young mother?
There was a chill in the air, and Anna walked over to the window and opened the shutters wide, desperate for warm sunshine and fresh air. A couple of chickens pecked around in the dirt yard, and a bird sang its morning greeting from the boughs of the apple tree. Anna looked left and right, up and down the street, and saw only a young shepherd boy on his way to the pasture to guard the village sheep, with his crook over his shoulder and his meagre lunch in a bundle swinging on the end of it. She longed to join him in his carefree day, to whistle on her way without a care in the world like he was doing.
Sighing heavily, Anna turned around and dragged herself back to face the still body of her friend. What now? Was Maeyken’s soul in Heaven, and had she won her crown as she had believed she would, or the other…but she would not think of that. Of course, sweet Maeyken would not go where the fiends dwelled. Even if a hundred Father Hendricks said so, she refused to believe it. She crossed herself and shivered. Would the bells on the church toll for Maeyken, or would the clergy refuse to do her friend this last honor because she was Anabaptist? With a start she wondered whether she could even be buried in the churchyard. And if she was, would she be in the part where the witches and murderers were buried, in unconsecrated ground? Please, God, no! Maeyken deserves better than that.
She must tell the children. Anna wiped her eyes with her apron, and splashed some cool water on her face from the basin beside the bed. The dreadful task must be done, and there was no way around it.
They were chattering away to Janneken as she prepared her daily bread dough. As soon as she stepped into the kitchen, the babbling stopped, as if the children sensed that something terrible had happened. Trijntgen blanched and stared at Anna, while Bettke put her thumb in her mouth and backed into Janneken, whose hands ceased their kneading. Alarm filled the maid’s face as the truth sank in without a word being spoken.
Anna sat on the bench close to Janneken and gathered the children around her. She picked up Dirk, who at only one year old would never remember his mother, and held him to her breast. “Kinder…” she began, but before she got another word out, Trijntgen and Bettke burst out in sobs, and there was nothing for it but to weep along with them. Janneken resumed her kneading with tears running down her cheeks, and kept on kneading long after the dough was done.
“Kinder, I am so sorry,” Anna tried again. “Yes, dear Moeder has died, God zegene haar ziel.” Maeyken’s love of God had been clear, and it must be true that He blessed her soul. But what would she do about a burial? It was not in her place to arrange this, it was Adriaen’s duty. He should be home to take care of everything instead of lying in prison. Would the officers allow him to come home for his wife’s funeral, or were they too hard-hearted?
Without giving it more thought, she picked up Dirk, and taking one of Bettke’s hands and Trijntgen the other, she strode towards the door. “Come with me, kinder. We’re going to find Vader.” Three teary-eyed, forlorn faces looked at her with awe.
“And bring him home?” Trijntgen asked hopefully, wiping her nose and her eyes with her apron. Anna fished a cloth out of her bodice and cleaned everyone’s face.
“Let us hope so.” Losing one’s parents was hard, and having their father home would surely assuage some of the grief the children were suffering.
“And Janneken, you come too.”
“Thank you, miss. I…I’m a-feared to stay here alone with… with her.”
Anna settled the little boy comfortably on her hip and headed for the Stadthaus, her chin in the air. The children needed their father now that they no longer had a mother. Surely, the authorities could not be cruel enough to deny this to Adriaen and to his children, at least long enough to bury his wife. The Court officer was probably still lolling in bed this early in the morning. Or so she hoped. Housewives threw open their shutters, and stared with round eyes at Anna, the maid and the children as they passed beneath their windows. The stench of their just-emptied slop pails crowded out the clean scent of the fresh morning breezes, and Anna wrinkled her nose.
“Anna, where are you going? Out to the sea, to wait for a handsome prince to come sailing in and carry you away?” The housewives smirked at each other, then turned away laughing. Anna clenched her jaw and looked straight ahead. If only it were so simple. Why couldn’t they just go hide in their houses again? Should she tell them that Maeyken had died? Would they care?
The guard looked up drowsily from his post outside the door of the Stadthaus when she arrived, unfolding his head from his large black beard, bleary from his drinking the night before. He straightened up when he saw who had arrived, and he narrowed his small and piggish eyes. His meaty hand clutched the hilt of his sword, and he puffed out his wine-splattered, satin-slashed doublet.
“Where are you going this morning, mijn lieve heks?” I’m not your dear witch, Anna thought, but said nothing. The guard eyed the children as if they had just crawled from beneath a pile of dung. “And the lovely children.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes, but revealed his uneven yellow teeth.
“I’ve come to take Adriaen Geerts home.” She stared the man in the eye, giving him a look that used to terrify the village bullies when they had pushed her too far.
He laughed incredulously. “My, my! Aren’t we brave this morning!”
Anna glared at him, not giving an inch. Surmising that he was half-drunk, she pushed past him, the children in tow, shoving open the heavy oak door of the town hall. The guard swore and followed her for a few steps, thought better of it, and returned to his post. She marched her little procession along a stony arched hallway, dim with age and tears. She surprised the young jailkeeper, who was loafing in the study with his feet on the desk, a jug of wine in his hand.
Stiffening her resolve, Anna collected every shred of conviction within her, and took a deep breath. “I need you to unlock the cell of Adriaen Geerts. These are his children. His wife passed away last night, and he needs to go home and bury her. He will make sure you are well paid.”
The jailkeeper eyed her up and down, then raked his gaze over the young maid. “How do I know that’s true?”
“Have you ever known Adriaen Geerts to not honor his commitments? I know his family means more to him than his money.” She glared at him. “A fact you cannot fathom, I’m sure.”
The jailer narrowed his eyes, “Watch your mouth, je heks. I could lock you in the dungeon as easy as not, so be respectful.” He appraised her once more, a cunning look in his eyes, then stood. “I don’t know why I’m helping you out, except I know Adriaen has the money, and as you said, he will honor this unauthorized charge you are casting upon him. In any case, I will make sure he does. I may as well take a share of the money before the Court confiscates it. I will need 10 florins.”
Anna gulped, but tried not to show her dismay. This was more than her father had made in a year on the farm but, of course, a master goldsmith like Adriaen probably earned much more. She shoved away her guilt about promising Adriaen’s money to this crooked jailer, deciding Adriaen would want to get out even if he lost some money. His wealth wouldn’t do him any good if he were executed.
“Of course. Now show us the way.”
Jangling his keys nonchalantly, the jailkeeper sauntered down the hallway and opened the door that led to the cells downstairs. Anna shivered. This was no place for wide-eyed children and cowering maids, but what was done, was done. She ought to have left them all at home, but with their poor dead mother lying there? No, it wouldn’t do. She could still turn around and go home, only there might never be another chance to rescue Adriaen. And she wanted him out! Shifting Dirk to her other hip, she stepped down the crumbling stone stairway, with the others hanging onto her skirt as they followed her downwards.
Someone was groaning down there, and another cursing, but above and between all that, Anna heard a soft, clear tone. Someone was singing! Adriaen. She would know his voice anywhere.
“My God I am thine, what a refuge divine...”
His ardent baritone floated through the squalid quarters, masking the cursing voice, almost letting her forget, for a moment, that this was a dungeon. Almost, but not quite. This area was much worse than the place where Anna and Maeyken had been kept. A pervading dampness clung to the skin, and the eye-watering stench alone was enough to be called torture. The odor of unwashed bodies, human waste and the decay of ages was sickening.
Anna reached down to bring her apron to her nose, but then thought better of it. She refused to show any weakness in front of this contemptible man. He must never know how hard her heart was beating.
The children clung to her long skirts, pressing their little noses into the folds. The jailkeeper fiddled with his keys, then looked at her maliciously.
“I don’t think I have the right key with me. I guess you better go home.”
As if on cue, the children all began crying at once. Their barely restrained terror had been contained long enough. Janneken had a fierce grip on Anna’s elbow, and even she was sniffling.
The singing stopped. “Maeyken, is that you?” Adriaen’s muffled voice came through the rough board wall. Now she would have to tell him about Maeyken, and a lump formed in her throat.
She raised her voice through the din of the children’s cries. “Tis only me, Anna, and I…” She could not tell Adriaen about his wife’s death through this commotion. What an impulsive, half-witted idea it had been to bring the little ones to this place. But now, she wasn’t leaving without seeing Adriaen. Not when she was this close. She swung around to face the jailkeeper. The keys dangled in his bony hand and she had half a mind to snatch them away and unlock the cell herself.
The jailkeeper, disgusted with the noise, hollered. “Go, go home! You can’t visit today.”
Anna jerked towards him in a passion and shook her finger in front of his nose. “I have come to take him home! The Court cannot be so cruel as to forbid a man to see to his wife’s funeral. I’m not leaving without him!”
The jailkeeper took a step backwards, his eyes stretched out in surprise, and something else. Fear? He had called her a witch. Grudging admiration? Undoubtedly not.
“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He got out his iron keys and found the correct one without any trouble. “But he can’t go home today. You’ll see.”
He sounded altogether too ominous for comfort.
At first, Anna thought the jailkeeper must have opened the wrong door. The man lying in the straw on the stone floor was limp as a rag, his dark hair disheveled and caked with dried blood. He tried to raise an arm in greeting, but it fell back, and a grimace of pain crossed his filthy face. The place smelled worse than a rotted dung heap. Only the eyes looked familiar, those honey-tinted brown eyes which held a look of grateful welcome. With an effort, Anna held back her tears. She must be strong for Adriaen.
“Adriaen! What did they do to you?” She crossed the cell to kneel beside him, and he made no attempt to rise. The jailkeeper stood smirking in the doorway. The children shrank against the stone walls, not recognizing their strong father, who was reduced to little more than a shrunken heap of useless limbs.
“The questioning, Anna. Didn’t Maeyken tell you we have been baptized?” Anna nodded. “The judge wanted to know who the leaders are. But let’s talk about something else.” He nodded towards the children, then at the man standing just inside the cell. “How is Maeyken? And the babe?”
Anna did not want to be the one telling him the grievous news. She cleared her throat, but words wouldn’t come. The man on the floor stiffened.
“Anna, what is it?” He looked at her pleadingly. “Is…is she sick?”
Anna shook her head. “Worse than that.” The tears refused to be held back any longer, and she dabbed at them with her sleeve. A shadow crossed Adriaen’s weary face as he digested the cruel truth, and he closed his eyes in a mute prayer, his lips working. Finally, he brightened with an effort.
“So, the Lord has called her home and she has obtained the crown. Let us not weep too long for her, for she has entered the City of Gold, where joy and peace abide. Oh, that I could join her there.”
Anna was startled. “But the kinder…” Did Adriaen wish to die? She, too, wanted to believe Maeyken was in Heaven, and she supposed Adriaen longed to be there with her. But how could Maeyken be truly reconciled to God since she hadn’t had extreme unction administered by a priest? Anna had baptized Anneken, so why had she stopped short of sending for the priest when Maeyken was dying? She squirmed. Something had held her back.
“Ah yes, the children.” He smiled at them. “Mijn lieveling kinderen, don’t you remember your liefdevolle Vader? Finally, they acknowledged this man lying on the floor as their father. They shuffled up to him, still sniffling a little, and sat down beside Adriaen in the straw, staring at their broken vader. Janneken went to sit beside Anna.
Dirk was the first to reach out and touch his vader’s stubbly cheek. Dirk giggled, and drew back, then did it again. Bettke stuck out a tentative finger and poked Adriaen’s chin, then bent closer to examine why it felt so scratchy. Trijntgen pushed the matted hair back from the wide forehead, smoothing it into place the best she could. Adriaen’s eyes dampened at their innocent caresses, and wincing a little, he moved his arm to encircle them.
The jailkeeper cleared his throat. “Tell her where you hid the money, then they must leave. Officer Stein will be back soon, and you better be out of sight before he comes, or you won’t see the prisoner again.” There was so much more Anna wanted to say.
“I promised you would give him money if he let me in to see you,” Anna confessed, looking at the floor. “I was going to take you home…”
Adriaen didn’t seem surprised that she’d had to bribe the jailer. He whispered, “In the cellar….” Anna nodded. She would find it. It was horrible to have to pay such an outrageous amount of money for a visit of such short duration. “Will you promise that if something happens to me, you will take care of them?” Adriaen asked, nodding towards the children. They were scrambling up from the dirty floor, ready to leave this disturbing place where their vader was so weak.
Anna stared at him in alarm. “You must not speak so. Of course you will come home.”
Adriaen shrugged. “Only God knows.”
“I must leave, but is there anything I can do for you?”
“You are very kind, Anna. I don’t need much, but I have longed to read from the Bible, lest I falter in the faith.” In a low whisper he told her where to find it. “Besides that, only paper and ink to keep in touch with the Brethren.”
“I’ll do what I can.” What you really need is someone who can put your limbs back in their sockets.
Their time was up, and she still hadn’t asked him what to do about Maeyken’s body. And Simon! Where was he?
The jailer prodded Anna and the children out of the cell, and up the damp stairs. She called over her shoulder, “Simon, are you down here?”
Was that a groan? Simon’s groan? “Simon! Have courage!” She was nearly at the top of the stairs, and soon she would be pushed out of Simon’s hearing. “I will try to get help for you!”
“Quiet!” hissed the jailer. “Don’t get me in trouble, or you shall regret it.” Anna closed her mouth and hastened with her little tribe down the arched corridor, averting her eyes from the winding staircase, which a few days ago she had been forced to climb in chains.
The jailer escorted them as far as the oaken doors, then hastened back to his study, presumably to reunite with the wine jug. Anna hurried the children out the door, past the guard who scowled when they passed by him, and hastened through the massive arches and down the cobbled street.
She took a detour to Elizabeth’s house, though her back was bent with fatigue from carrying the one-year-old. The children plodded along beside her, too overwhelmed to say anything. Janneken the maid held the two little girls’ hands as they followed wherever Anna led them. The full weight of her responsibility burdened her heart and her shoulders. What if she were arrested and the children taken away? What if the plague came and took the children? What if some other illness sent them to an early grave? Losing this little family would break her heart, though her heart had never healed since the violent deaths of her own family. However, with all Christendom floundering in a dark storm of religious strife, no person could be immune to loss.
She must faithfully attend to her prayers and confession so that God would look favorably upon her. Anna had envied her friend’s perfect and happy life, and now she was gone. Maeyken’s death was the punishment she got for thinking those unworthy thoughts. Anna’s guilt multiplied. Not only had she been covetous of her friend’s blessings, she had been cowardly, and a man was being hunted because of her. She deserved to be chastened, but why must her loved ones suffer instead of herself?
Anna shook her head wearily. She had involved herself with the affairs of the Anabaptists, and maybe God was displeased with her. But how could she stay uninvolved when it included her dearest friends? Would God want her to betray those who had shown her kindness? And would He ask it of her to deposit the children at an orphanage, or a monastery, where nobody would love them? This was something she must ask Father Hendricks about, at the earliest opportunity. But would she agree with his answers?
She tried to stifle the anger that surged within her when she thought of everything Adriaen and Maeyken had risked by joining the Anabaptists. Not only were their own lives in peril, but also their children’s security, and worst of all their souls, although obviously they would not agree with that.
To be sure, the Anabaptists she had met were nothing like the violent German peasants she had seen at home, even though the authorities judged them all the same. Either you agreed with the government, or you were a heretic. Peace-loving citizens who wanted to worship God in their own way were just as treasonous as those who attacked nobles and ruined church images.
Couldn’t they be content with the old traditions of the Holy Roman Catholic Church? She had heard the gossip about the corruption of the priests and bishops, but Anna doubted they all drank and gambled and cavorted with women. Did Father Hendricks?
Was it blasphemous for the priests to chant masses in Latin, just because nobody understood a word they were saying? Nobody needed to know what they were saying. If everyone paid the tithes, and went to communion and mass, the priests took care of the soul. That’s what their job was, making sure everyone got to Heaven. Who would intercede for Maeyken’s soul?
Elizabeth was feeding Anneken when Anna arrived at her house with her adopted family. Jorg, Elizabeth’s little boy, cooed happily in his basket, not worried about having to share his food. Anna dragged her weary body to a stool and Dirk slithered off her lap and crawled over to the baby’s basket.
“You look terrible, Anna,” Elizabeth said. “When did you last sleep?” Her kind, brown eyes were full of sympathy.
Anna yawned. “I can’t remember.” There hadn’t been time for sleep.
“What have you been up to? You look right uitkeput. The children look haggard and unhappy too.”
Anna buried her face in her hands. Bringing news of death to people was an unpleasant task, she had discovered, and she fidgeted on her stool, wondering how to break the news of Maeyken’s death to Elizabeth. She knew Elizabeth was Maeyken’s friend, but Anna really didn’t know Elizabeth that well. How would she take the news? Finally, she blurted it out.
“Elizabeth, Maeyken died.”
“Oh no! She succumbed to the fever?” Elizabeth gasped, and her eyes widened in distress. “I didn’t realize she was quite that sick.”
“Yes,” Anna said through gathering tears, “I did everything I could think of, but it wasn’t enough.”
“Oh, Anna. Don’t feel that way. Nobody can cure childbed fever once it sets in. Knowing you, I’m certain Maeyken was in good hands.” Elizabeth bowed her head, and moisture shimmered in her eyes. “Maeyken gone. It doesn’t seem possible, and I’m going to miss her so much.”
“I know. She was very kind to me when I moved here, and she opened her heart and her home the very first day.” Anna twisted her hands in her lap. “I need someone to look after her. She had joined the Anabaptists, and I don’t know what to do.” Elizabeth gave a small start. “Someone needs to come. Who will bury her and where? I was hoping Adriaen would be allowed to leave prison long enough to see to her, but he’s in no condition to do so.”
“How do you know that?”
“I went to see him in the dungeon.” Now that she was safely away from the prison, she couldn’t believe she’d had the nerve to do what she did.
“You what? Anna! Did you talk to him? How did that come about?”
Between sighs and tears, she related what she’d seen and heard in the dungeon. “And Adriaen is asking for his Bible and some paper and ink. And I need money to pay the jailkeeper. I bribed him, so I could see Adriaen.” Anna couldn’t bear to dwell on Adriaen’s suffering. Did Simon share the same fate, or worse? That parting groan haunted her; what had they done to the elderly, harmless man?
“Elizabeth, what is it that gives the Anabaptists the strength to endure torture without revealing anything? Adriaen was even singing. And then when I saw him, my heart broke. I’m afraid he’ll never walk again.” There, she had said it. She was glad Maeyken would never need to know what tortures they had inflicted on him.
Elizabeth put her hand on Anna’s shoulder. “Anna, souls are much more precious than bodies. Nobody can take that away, even when everything else is gone.”
“Of course, the soul is precious. So why would anyone throw it away to join the seditious Anabaptists?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I shall pray you find an answer to that someday. Will you be looking after Maeyken’s children?”
“I wouldn’t dream of parting with them.” Anna glanced at the infant dozing peacefully on Elizabeth’s lap. “Are you able to keep the baby a little longer?”
“Of course. I love Anneken just as much as I love Jorg. Would you like to hold her now?” Anna held out her arms and Elizabeth gave Anneken to her.
“Don’t you worry. I’ll find someone to take care of her, as soon as I’ve fed Jorg. You just stay here and rest until I come back. Janneken, will you come and assist me?” The maid agreed, half fearfully, as if she would like to object but didn’t dare. Elizabeth put Jorg in his basket, then disappeared into the bedroom and changed into her black mourning gown, and put on a black bonnet and shawl. She carried a satchel in her hand and Anna didn’t even want to know what was in there. With a reassuring smile, Elizabeth left with Janneken.
After they left, Anna stayed on her stool, holding the tiny girl in her arms, the children gathered around her in subdued silence. They sat on the floor within the warm circle of the fire, and Anna wished she could think of something comforting to say. To lose their mother and see their father laid low all in one day was a tragedy they should never have had to go through. She ached for them, and berated herself once more for taking the children to the prison. How thoughtless she had been!
“Anna,” the normally exuberant Trijntgen asked in a quivering voice, “Will Vader die too?”
Anna stroked the little girl’s golden hair and swallowed hard. “No, Trijntgen. Your father will not die.” Anabaptist men were often executed by the sword, and sometimes burned, but not Adriaen! He had found the strength to sing in his affliction, and she would have to find the strength to help get him out of there, along with Simon. She had promised to send help, and she must get her mind off her grief and do something.