You’re dying,” said the Mother Superior.
Sister Arvonne looked up from her straw bed in the tiny cell. “How do you know?”
“I heard it in your voice this morning, when you sang at Matins. “I‘d always thought I would precede you,”
“I came to see if you need anything.”
“You’re very chatty this morning,” said Sister Arvonne.
She closed her eyes a moment and felt around inside to see if she could find what Mother Superior had found. There were the familiar pains of decline, the interior weariness of having lived too long for her spirit. But these were all familiar. When she opened her eyes Mother Superior was gone.
The emptiness of the small room brought with it a fresh whiff of darkness. Something was coming. Her eyes scanned the room to be sure it hadn’t changed. Four small walls and a door. A table with an oil lamp, a black brittle Bible and a hymnal. On the wall a simple cross. On a wooden rack was a change of formal clothes and work clothes for the communal garden and a change of shoes.
And something else in the room that had not been there before as though a large animal had settled itself in the tiny room.
She’s right, thought Sister Arvonne.
She sat up, attentive for signs of pain or imminent failure, but there was nothing. The feeling of disappointment startled her.
Am I so eager to die? Has it been too long?
She rose slowly, swung her legs over the side of the bed and placed her feet flat on the cool stone floor. She stood, feeling the cascade of sharp pains in her hips and knees and lower back, swayed slowly, back arched, running her tongue over her teeth, tasting. No. Death was not in her mouth, not yet. Still something new was in the room.
What should I do?
Rejoice, said the something in the room.
What should I rejoice over?
She reached and rubbed her tired eyes, her thin skin as frail as moth wings. She dressed in the work clothes of the garden and padded barefoot into the hall. These smooth stone walls knew her and the slowly diminishing group of women. People had stopped coming. Young girls didn’t want this way of life anymore.
In all this time, I have not felt God. I felt God with such passion that all I thought of was God. I was consumed by God and no other thing. I was hungry and forgot to eat, because I was waiting for God. I was tired and forgot to sleep because I was waiting for God. And still God did not come to me.
She touched her face again. Reached up and touched the silver fuzz of her close cut hair. She walked carefully down the hallway, intending to go to the sanctuary to sit in the quiet. She heard singing and the familiar chant from the sanctuary minor and for a moment thought she should go there. But her feet wanted to walk, and the movement loosened her. She felt a fresh breeze and knew that the door to the garden was open. She stepped out into the bright sunlight. And there it was. The Great Temptor.
The one and only entrance in or out of the cloister, the west gate was open. In her lifetime it had been open maybe a dozen times over the years, usually to let a new novice in, or the rare removal of the deceased when relatives insisted. To leave without permission was the breaking of a very specific and unique vow.
She stood heavy under the weight of her desire to spread herself in a larger space. Was this a test of her faith? Of her loyalty to the sisterhood? She couldn’t say. She wasn’t used to having her faith tested at this late in life. It was a just a given, like her chastity, and like her chastity who would tempt her at her age anyway?
Why is it open?
She looked over her shoulder, heard the soft voices of the chanting in the sanctuary, soft but strong Everyone was gathered there. To refuse temptation, it could be a source of spiritual pride. She would think herself strong. She would think herself perfect. There is no one perfect but God, why should she aspire to such rebellion and purity? To be tempted. It was a kind of honor. A consummation.
If she slipped out into the wide sunlight, for a short time, who would know?
She stood looking, running her tongue over her remaining teeth, tasting. She stood, with the silence in her head humming, feeling inside to see what she would do.
I gave everything to You, she thought. And you have never spoken to me since I arrived here as a girl all the uncounted years ago. I don’t actually know how old I am, since birthdays were never marked. I don’t think even You know how old I am. If you will speak, see me move boldly and speak to the bold. Do you ignore your quiet birds? Do you only speak to the loud, to the sinners in torment who cry out to you passionately? Do you love to wrestle with the strong flesh only? She raised her left hand and wiped a bead of sweat off her hair. The bright sun glinted off the plain gold ring there. Why would our lord wish for a quiet wife? No man does.
. She put her hand to the frame of the gate and gave a guilty look over her shoulder. I’ll just stand outside the gate and no further. A gesture. I’ll break my vows only a little bit. If I’m dying, how much penance can it take? And what will it matter anyway?
It’s a vow. It could matter.
Then let God speak! Our Lord faced the Great Tempter in the wilderness, and he was offered all the Kingdoms of the world to bow down and worship him. All I want is a moment in the sun.
It was a long dirt road, partly grown with weeds from being rarely used. And along the sides of the road, wonderful trees. As if the broccoli plants in the communal garden had grown to giants. It had been years, she remembered trees and yet they seemed like alien life forms she had also renounced. And on the road a tiny bird, brown, plain and fearless tapped at the red clay dust.
There God is waiting, there God will speak to me.
She looked from the wonder of the bird to the brightness of the trees, struggling which to choose. She longed to touch. Even more, suddenly, ravenously, longed to be touched. Her calloused feet moved to the road, towards the bird, saw the grass. Green, wet, up to her ankles, untouched by horses. Oh, to see a horse again. To ride in a buggy or a milk carriage, anything. She had almost forgotten the horses, because to remember them would have been a greater torture than to remember the look and touch of men.
Somewhere out there was a baby girl who would have grown old also by now, if she was alive at all in this world. Never knowing her mother standing so, maybe having a litter of grandchildren who would know the foster family, probably a rich family in a large house with servants and many horses. Or Lord if it could be so. They would not know her, or the price imposed on the sin or her daughter's birth. But she could live with that, had lived with that at peace.
She stepped into the wet grass, felt it cold and bright on her feet. Felt the grass touch her. The little bird looked up, watched her, deciding and then went back to searching in the dirt. The grass was too lush, too wet, too gorgeous to lift her feet from. She slid her toes levelly through as though plowing through silk sheets. The sun glinted off her gold ring as she brought it to her face to brush a tear. She moved towards the bird, gently stalking it. It looked up and watched her approach. Now, a body’s length, now an arm’s length, now a hands length away. The bird stood alert and trembling on impossibly thin legs watching her and she marveled that birds never came to the cloister or even the garden. Such vibrant life. She held her breath, tottered and let her knees down in the grass as though she would pray to it, when suddenly it hopped into the air and darted into the branches of the tree. She rested a moment, with her skirt now wet, revealing her crime of leaving the walls for a place where grass was wet and birds flew. She ran her hands through the grass, caressing it, remembering, against her will, the touch of a handsome farm hand's fingers. There in the warmth of the old tobacco barn, with sparrows and barns owls enough in the loft. And everywhere the smell of the horses and the warm weedy rounds of their droppings like a pile of bread buns cooling.
And the young man had been there when she was a maid, promising her marriage, promising her his devotion. And then things happened, they simply took a course she barely understood as her skirts were up and the weight of his belly on top of her and his promise in her ears. It was over in less than a minute, with a hard thrust, a grunt and a sigh. The young man had pulled his trousers up, spit on the ground once and staggered away into the dark, leaving her with the sting of her torn maidenhead and the wet smear of his spunk drooling from her with gross animal frankness. And soon, like the symptoms of a disease, her belly began to blossom and she was sacrificed to the Blessed Virgin forever.
She tore a double handful of the grass and held it to her face, smelling the earth of the torn roots, taking a piece in her mouth and chewing it. I should have been born a horse.
Oh the years.
There was noise on the other side of the road. Things were missing. The smell of horses, the aroma of the horse droppings, it came back to her and she longed to see a horse. And the other thing missing – the silence. Not only the silence of the cloister, but the great silence she remembered of the world when it was at rest. Underneath all was the low hum of things happening somewhere. She didn’t remember the world as being so noisy.
She left the grass and went to the road. Walking towards the low rush and sound. As she crossed the small beat down bridge over a creek, which hadn’t been there last she remembered, she saw it. A melted ribbon of stone cutting through the trees, parting them like a river. It was black and bleak, it radiated heat. As she watched, something like a red bubble of steel and glass sped at terrific speed, coming closer and then rushing past. And behind the tinted glass, faces. There were people in it. And then she understood. There were no horses. This was something more powerful and without a heart.
There was a noise above as though the clouds were being beaten continuously with a stick. Overhead, moving fast like a huge dandelion seed came another bubble of glass and steel, like a dragonfly from a dream clattering by above. She watched it pass.
The world has moved on. It moved on while I was gone. It has moved so far on without me I’ll never find my way back.
Something fluttered at her feet. Hoping it might be the little bird she looked down.
A battered green piece of paper. She picked it up and recognized it instantly. A dollar bill.
It was this, which crushed her. She felt her knees fall as she dropped into the dingy roadside weeds, weeping. All the world, all the world had moved on, this world which didn’t need her and had never needed her. And her baby girl, long lost in the tide of time, who never needed her either, washed downstream in this new world, maybe alive, maybe dead, in this world where horses and farms and buggies and clear soundless nights had all been replaced with something which seemed both ravenous and dead.
All the years, all she might have been. Her world had been so tiny, each day the same, a tiny cage in which she sang to God in the mornings and evenings with her fellow plain birds, brides of Christ eternally untouched by the hand of man. And for nothing.
Another bubble of glass and blue steel flashed by. She staggered to her feet, fell, blind, groping on her knees for the road through the trees. She wanted to run but her feet had become so heavy. She raised herself, dragged forward and felt her heart laboring painfully in her thin chest. Her left arm began to throb from deep inside. She could hear it in her ears. It had lost its rhythm. Too fast. She should do something, pray, sing, chant the rosary, but it was impossible even to speak. She lifted each foot and moved and moved ahead slowly.
After ages, when the wall of the cloister came in sight, the gate was closed. She tugged but it was locked on the other side. She stood before it wavering, struggling in a fog to remember why she had come here. In her hand the dollar bill had been squeezed into a ball. She dropped it, looked at it in the dust as the thudding of her heart faded.
I sang to God. We all did, we poor birds. God did not speak to me in all these years, there was only this life.
There was a pressure on her left hand which squeezed the gold band there and the pain in her chest went away. She looked down and saw a male hand holding her fingers lightly. She looked up into the face of a young, Semitic looking man with kind, serious eyes.
“Hello Arvonne,” he said.