Beside me, fat Soeur Antoine clapped her meaty hands, her face mottled with exertion. I was suddenly aware of the smell of her sweat, of the dust in my nostrils. Someone clawed my back; it was Soeur Marguerite, her pinched face halfway between pleasure and pain, mouth drawn down in a trembling bow of excitement. The reek of bodies intensified. And from the sisters lined against the heat-crackling walls of the abbey came a cry both shrill and oddly savage, an aiiii! of pleasure and release, as if natural energies, loosened by the heat, had brought a kind of insanity to their applause. Aii! Encore! Aii! Encore!
Then I heard it; a single raised discordant voice, almost lost in a fury of acclamations. Mère Marie, I heard. Reverend Mother is . . . then once again the distracted buzzing of heat and voices, then the one voice again, higher than the rest.
I looked around for the source of the cry and saw Soeur Alfonsine, the consumptive nun, standing high upon the chapel steps, arms spread, her face white and exalted. Few of the sisters paid her any attention. Lazarillo's troupe was taking a last bow; the actors went round once more with flowers and bonbons, the fire-eater gave a final spurt of flame; the monkey turned a somersault. Arlequin's face was running with greasepaint; Isabelletoo old for the part, and with a visible paunchwas melting away in the heat, her scarlet mouth smeared halfway to her ears.
Soeur Alfonsine was still shouting, straining to be heard above the voices of the nuns. "It's a judgment on us!" I thought she said. "A terrible judgment!"
Now some of the nuns looked exasperated; Alfonsine was never happier than when she was doing penance for something. "For pity's sake, Alfonsine, what now?"
She fixed us with her martyr's eyes. "My sisters!" she said, more in accusation than grief. "The Reverend Mother is dead!"
And at those words a silence fell over all of us. The players looked guilty and confused, as if aware that their welcome had been suddenly withdrawn. The tambourin player let his arm drop to his side in a harsh jangle of bells.
"Dead?" As if it could not be real in this iron heat, beneath this sledgehammer sky.
Alfonsine nodded; behind me, Soeur Marguerite was already beginning to keen. Miserere nobis, miserere nobis . . .
Fleur looked up at me, puzzled, and I caught her in my arms with sudden fierceness. "Is it finished?" she asked me. "Will the monkey dance again?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"Why not? Was it the black bird?"
I looked at her, startled. Five years old and she sees everything. Her eyes are like pieces of mirror reflecting the skytoday blue, tomorrow the purple-gray of a storm cloud's belly. "The black bird," she repeated impatiently. "He's gone now."
I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that she was right. The crow had gone, his message delivered, and I knew then for certain that my premonition was true. Our time in the sunlight had finally come to an end.
The foregoing is excerpted from Holy Fools by Joanne Harris. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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