Once we got to St. Cierans, Edna led me through the high brick gates into a big garden patch out back. There was Sister lying down in the dirt. A blunt knife and a jar of water were on the ground nearby. She looked dazed but awake. Was I struck by lightning? she said, looking up at me with great gray eyes.
I knew I had to get her out of that sun posthaste, but she proved hard to move as a trolley off its track. As I tried to raise her, I noticed an open can of gummy brown perfumy stuff fastened to her belt. When I saw her bare feet, I thought this Sister is a rugged little number - light yet durable, scanty yet galvanized. Once I got her up, Edna wedged herself under one arm, I got under the other, and we limped toward the convent.
As we stepped into the cool gloom of the place, I was struck by its smell of starched linen and dusty paraffin. Though it was a hotter-than-blazes Indian summer day, some frosty twilight poured from the high windows. Sister Honoraria (for she was our fallen nun) said the others were at prayers and must not be disturbed on her account. Let me take up my cross, she said, or I will never have my crown. She directed us through waxed amber corridors, up an oak stairway to the nuns dormitory.
The Sisters beds were separated by sheets hung from poles to make cells the size of small box stalls, maybe six feet square. We entered Sisters alcove through a curtain and laid her down on her iron cot. The place was dark as an icehouse. It took a while to make out the white wooden box, straight plain chair, washstand, soap dish, and tin cup that were the furnishings. I told Edna to go rescue the kids from Kitty and ask Papa to fetch Doc Muswell.
I then set about pulling the heavy togs off Sister. She spoke of this and that she had to do, but I said the doctor was coming, and she was too listless to argue. When I unfastened the strings of her headpiece, I was surprised to find that the starched bonnet had prickers on its inside. I saw theyd left marks on the skin and stubby scalp of her. Under her habit was a muslin gown big as a croup tent, and as I wrassled with her outer outfit, this undergarment pulled in such a way that I glimpsed a scar, livid and cross-shaped, on her ribs. You got a bad cut there, Sister, I said, just to keep the conversation going.
Here cut and here burn, but spare me in eternity, she said.
Howd you get a cut like that? I had lockjaw on my mind.
No doubt youve heard tales, she said. People, even good people, are given to falsehood and exaggeration. And yet I would do wrong to say I did no wrong. She asked about the can that had been fastened at her waist, and I said Id put it out of the way, under the cot.
If I had walked too heavily, or used my eyes with liberty, or kissed an infant for its beauty . . . for these sins, I might be forgiven, she continued.
Nobodys perfect, I said.
Perfection is a nuns purpose, she replied. She must wash the taste of the world from her mouth with carbolic and sleep on thorns lest she sleep too well. If the chapel is cozy, let her kneel in snow. If for an instant she forgets Christs suffering, let her take switches to her shoulders, brand herself with faggots, wear an iron chain about her waist.
I was beginning to think this Sister was a deep customer. The worst sin is shiftlessness, I said. Its better to shuck your blues and shake a leg.
Perhaps tales have reached you. Vile accusations have been made, she said, concerning the orphans. That I had them kneel like dogs and used their backs as writing desks, when in fact they are raised most tenderly.
That I didnt know, I said.
Reprinted from The Nightingales of Troy by Alice Fulton. Copyright (c) 2008. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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