What if Anne Boleyn knew all along? What if she knew well before her mind could think beyond the nursery, before she knew any desire beyond eat, drink, play, sleep.
By day she considers, as babies do, whether a thing is glittery and fun to look at, whether a thing is smooth and slippery, or rough and good to touch. By night she feels the darkness take her, she shakes with chill. She cries for Nurse, who brings a flicker of light, who brings motion and touch and assurance that yes, still here, you are still here. In the morning she will recommence her infant experiments. If I drop this kind of thing, it bounces. If I drop this kind of thing, it smashes to smithereens in a shower of hard light. This kind of thing falls over me, hides me from view. Takes my breath.
A small, slight girl, she likes best to play with her mother’s dogs, to let them knock her over, lick her face. But she brings a different mood to her play with dollies. She is quiet, content to dress and place them in a circle, undress them and put them to bed. Several times a day she puts her dolls to bed, developing a ritual with a strange ending. Always she puts her favorite doll to bed last, and always she finishes by drawing a kerchief up and over the doll’s head. When Nurse shows her how to fold the kerchief back, like a blanket, so dolly can breathe, Anne shakes her head no, pulls the fabric back over the head, presses it to the doll’s face. She does this with tenderness, while saying something in her sing-song patter. There seems to be no malice in it but Nurse is disturbed.
She grows up fine-boned and slender, and she and her sister are declared quick and lovely, though Mary is much the prettier, she is the one who will marry well. Anne should do well, too, she has charm and a silken tongue. The young men read her mood swings as mystique, her dark, still moments as depth. Nurse understands that Anne worries a secret, but she has no idea what it is. It shows in the way she hovers before a door, clenching her fists and taking a deep breath before she enters a room. In the way she will transform her attitude in an instant from quiet dismay to a humming energy that could burn off a fog, she is so keen to saturate every moment with as much life as possible. It shows in her still-broken nights, when Nurse sees a candle from young Anne’s room but stays away, too much distance between them now to be a comfort.
The Boleyn sisters are of a fine family and what’s more a family aspiring to greatness. To that end the father attaches his brood first to the French court, then to the English. Mary catches the attention of both Kings and obliges them whenever and however they ask. Good girl, says Daddy. And then Anne finds herself looking up at Henry’s measuring eye and says to herself, Ah. This is how it must happen. This is how you go from being a young woman with prospects but of no consequence, to someone who must be publicly destroyed. You fall in with a King. Not as her sister had done, you don’t fall into his bed. You fall into his plot.
Elizabeth is the reward. Such as she is, fat ginger-haired beast, her father’s daughter every breath. Not much reward for a fabricated queen. But for England. The Reformation.
What if she knew, looking at Elizabeth, that she, Anne, had served her purpose already, that she would never see the baby become a girl, a lady, a woman, because her part in the drama is done. She looks at the tight, pink fists, the pinched mouth. Not a crier, this one. Not for her, a pimping father, wedding intrigue, the thumb of a man, pressing, always, on her throat. Good. At least that. She feels a chill, calls for one of her ladies to take the child away, then demands privacy so she can nap. She has never been able to sleep with attendants present.
Her need to go unwatched when in her bedchamber will become a point of interest later. But that reckoning is still many months away. For now she climbs into her bed and pulls the blankets over her head, sighs into the empty black. Waits for the hands that will pat her into her shroud, the sing-song whispers that distract her from the waiting, the waiting, the waiting for the day when she is well and truly silent, when she can sleep for once entirely alone.
God save our Queen. Long live the Queen.
They say she went to the axe with dignity, they give her that. For a woman known to show temper, she moved with grace and resignation. Nurse dragged herself there, leaning on her cane, her feet stiff and blunt. There will be a loving witness to the child that was, she says to herself, one kind soul to pray Anne along to God’s embrace.
The wind pulls a lock of Anne’s hair from her cap. Before the ladies kneel to blindfold her, she draws the hair back under the fabric, lifting her eyes as she does so. Nurse sees her face, then, tilted up at her, open and naked as the girl she comforted in darkest night. What she sees allows her to catch the breath that has run from her since she heard that Anne had been taken to the tower. The tightness in Nurse’s heart releases, and she, a papist, crosses her chest. It is not decorum she sees in those dark eyes, foolish concern for some notion of what it means to be murdered honorably. In Anne’s face she sees exhaustion. And that she is ready.
Sleep, My Lady. Sleep.
Feature image is a section from Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Edouard Cibot.