Nuns in Love
a short story by Ron Savage
In the nun bar on Main and 19th, next to the Edgar Allan Poe house: three sisters - Agnes, Mary Elizabeth and Grace -, all drinking diet Pepsi. Their chatter rambles, hesitant, awkward, probably figuring out how to approach me about the raven.
What should I tell them? A present from a lover? I imagine Agnes going into cardiac arrest. Mary Elizabeth's glasses would fog over; and Grace, sweet, darling Grace, she'd kneel down and Hail-Mary-Our-Father us to death.
This is an up-tight crowd; dear girls, though, everyone. Our Ladies of the Phantom, my sisters of mercy and self-mutilation, my sisters of the warring heart and the famished soul: Jesus must have a passion for strange women.
Agnes beats herself for Him. Seriously. I hear her at night, leather whip striking flesh, the groans done like sex muffled for sleeping children; and whispering, Ohh, Lord, it's YOU, my Lord.
I've seen her bathing; chin-deep in the water, never naked, always the white gown soaked flat to whiter skin, the raw angles and bones. Marks groove her breasts and abdomen, swollen trails, marks along the shoulders and back too. Her faith is precarious, brutal.
Does He approve? Isn't His silence an approval? Why can't He say, "Look, sis, I suffered for you. Get it? That's my job, I suffer for the both of us."
The sisters are quiet and stare into their drinks. Sweet Grace chews on an ice cube; blushes at the noise, her life an implied breath, the rustle of hints and apologies. She's so young, twenty-one last week, ten years younger than me.
I know they're waiting to ask about my raven, and I admire their patience. But let them wait.
Don't you love the jukebox? It's a real antique. Notice the the orange and yellow lights quivering to the rhythm. The music's terrific, big band stuff, the Dorsey brothers, Woody Herman, Glenn Miller. In the background: Benny Goodman now, clarinet and brass amid the shadows. Groups of threes and fours gather at the tables, sisters with ivory hoods crowning black habits, all the talk very hush-hush, of course, very intense, shoes toe-tapping absently to the drums.
"The Mother has allowed you a pet?" Mary Elizabeth is forever disguising statements as questions, wishing only verification. She watches me, lips hunting for the soda straw; then a quick sip of Pepsi before mumbling, "...He must speak? Your uh pet, I mean."
Mary Elizabeth's a real number. She bleeds. Does it every Easter, screaming herself awake, the wounds opening across her forehead, blistering the hands and the tops of the feet: a nasty stigmata. Blood spills into the eyes, on her nightdress, blood drenching the sheets crimson.
That's my job.
I wonder if Mr. Poe isn't sitting next-door, ear leaning to the wall, scrawling notes and downing another Scotch; thinking, Who are these people? He lived in Richmond, you know. His home faces our convent.
Since coming here, four months ago this Tuesday, I've had seventeen tours of the Poe shrine. It's a childhood obsession, my love for the macabre. I visited his house alone once, after hours, mainly to escape Agnes and her moans. Mr. DeSantis is the caretaker, a sixty-eight year old charmer whose been known to say yes to a joint or two, and he'll occasionally toke himself into oblivion and forget to lock the rear window before leaving at night.
I found the raven there; a gift, I'm sure.
"Your conformation's tomorrow?" Mary Elizabeth again. An indirect route to the Pet Thing, no doubt. Does she know I have a lover? And softly, "...Angelica? You're okay? We're worried about you, dear."
Agnes and Grace gaze down at the table, expressions solemn, nodding together. Mary Elizabeth blinks. Her eyes are magnified behind thick wire-rims, eyes a faded, watery green. I picture her Easter wounds, blood drowning those eyes. And I'm scared. Mary Elizabeth's right, I join the order tomorrow.
I will marry a ghost. I will live among women who hurt themselves.
My chamber: cot to the brick wall, crucifix above the metal headboard, and the narrow window shapes moonlight over a stone floor. Time-warped gothic. Like Our Ladies of the Phantom, my room means business. The Mother tells me the convent is a hundred and fifty years old. I can feel its weariness, the resignation of other times; of other lives.
The raven cocks his head, observing me. He's lounging on the stand, a big droopy boy, sixteen inches high and ultra hefty, stomach puffed to hide his claws. The bird's sick, I suspect, or perhaps depressed. A new malady. It's terribly obvious, and I'm getting uneasy. He changes hour to hour, feathers molting and dull, the neck completely gray.
Did I do that to him?
I am no good with love; my thumb is as black as his feathers ought to be; nothing grows. Worse, I've never inspired love, not even during adolescence, no shy boys to be foolish for me, to show off and tease; no escorts to movies and school dances. "You've got terrific bone structure," father would say; mother agreed. But I didn't know of anyone who had an interest in bones. I've always been too thin, too tall, too reserved, and too promptly bruised by indifference.
Daddy left Momma. Then Momma turned weird and abandoned herself; that, years ago. I remember the two of us were about to eat lunch at a Roy Rogers when she decided to climb onto the table and do a little dance; shouting, Love'll steal your tits!
I never looked for my father the thief.
A week before she was hospitalized, I received a white leather bible from her, a birthday present. Months later, numbed to the max with broody dreams and foster care, I'd taken the bible out of the plastic box; opened it to a blank page in the front, and drew a heart. Within this heart, I used a purple felt-tip pen to neatly write: Angelica loves ________, leaving the space empty. It was the only time I cried.
At thirteen, who you love is who loves you.
Now the raven stretches out his right wing. He shudders and fluffs himself. I'm positive the bird's ill. Look here, several feathers are totally white.
Is he dying?
My foster parents believe that each of us is meant to be with a certain someone. I did wait, jobs as a cashier at Seven-Eleven, True Value Hardware, K-Mart - public places. But I'm not the sort of woman you'd rush up to. It's surprising how many people don't appreciate good bone structure.
I quit seeing Momma. She didn't want me there; told the nurse how everything I touched had died; said I was wicked and had helped Daddy electrocute her.
During the final drive home from the hospital, I stopped at the grocery store and bought a nice bottle of rosé. Got drunk too. The first time in my life: me, Angelica Marie Rosco, bare feet propped on the coffee table, limp as wet laundry, and sucking wine out of a Flinestones' jelly glass. I'd panicked, you see, started feeling invisible.
That's the night I unpacked the bible.
I recall sitting in the bedroom closet, legs hugging an old cardboard box, gazing at the purple heart I had drawn; expecting to find, Angelica loves _______.
Instead, and I've no explanation for it, I saw:
Jesus loves Angelica.
So I came here.
Your conformation's tomorrow? Angelica? You're okay? We're all worried about you, dear.
Uh-huh. Like I've got the problem.
She's doing it, and right on schedule: dear Agnes, whacking herself good, whip smacking the skin and bringing on the groans, the breathy words, a particularly vigorous session tonight. Even with the brick wall dividing us, I hear her. Pain and bliss seem indistinguishable. Is this vocational affliction necessary?
That's my job.
The raven stares at the moon. A luminous path clefts the shadows of the room, window to door, veiling my big droopy boy in silver. He's hunched between his wings, beak tucked firm to the crop.
"You depressed, huh?" conversing with the bird; wondering if Agnes is bothering him too. "...I bet you're sick."
He bobs his enormous head, side-stepping along the bar to be closer; a sing-song, "Little sissy."
"Angelica," I say. But it's hopeless. Raven adores giving me the Little Sissy routine.
I walk to the stand, roll back a dark sleeve; extend an arm. Talons prick the skin as he lumbers up to the elbow and nestles against my shoulder. Sitting us on the bed, I say: "How you been feelin'?"
"Don't kill yourself," the bird mutters. I almost drop him.
"Little sissy," he says, ignoring the slip, playing dumb and preening. Big Boy twists around, combing out the recent bloom of a white tail feather.
The raven's been here for three weeks, since my last visit to the Poe shrine; what a night, fleeing Sister Agnes, hurrying across the empty street at one-thirty in the morning, penguin suit hiked, and climbing into the open rear window.
Mr. Poe's house feels safe. I belong and don't know why; his room as small as mine, comforting, moonlit - the fireplace charred about its stone mouth; the floor, glittering dust, wide oak planks with wooden pegs; and there, a long-legged writing desk and stool next to the bed: only this and nothing more (ha, ha) -, incredibly familiar. I begin thinking like an amnesia victim, Have I stumbled home?
That night I'm lying on his bed, happy to get a break from Agnes, exhausted and pulled to the rim of sleep. Memories hustle a sorry parade: being hauled from Baltimore to Richmond by foster parents, right after my fourteenth birthday, anniversary of the Roy Rogers Crack-up. Monday morning I am a stranger riding the school bus. Everybody else's friends are crowding the aisles and seats as we pass the Poe house. I stare out and whisper, "...Yoo-hoo, Eddy? It's me. It's Angelica." Then the memories dissolve. That night sleep answers an old wish.
I wake to moonlight, wake naked under the sheets, feeling him between my legs, the slow thrusts; and above, thready black hair streaks his face. He looks down, his skin damp, pale, and the eyes could stop a scream. Such an awful despair. My legs lift, encircling him. I smell whiskey and the dank odor of the mattress. He murmurs, "...Virginia, dearest Virginia."
"Angelica," I say, gasping, huffing it out, lips sticking on dry gums. "Ann-gel-la -" Orgasms shatter the toes and yank in the darkness.
Waking again; waking alone, listening to an insistent tapping noise. The door opens, a lazy glide. I sit up, woozy, covering my breasts, peering into the vacant hall.
"Is that you?" asking this while I crawl to the foot of his bed. Both hands grip the sheet chest-high. "...Eddy? hello? Hello?" Why doesn't he answer and quit these dumb games? "C'mon, Eddy, d-don't be amusing."
Another thought, so bizarre: the time when I would recite his poetry to the mirror; contrive a childhood romance, calling myself Little Sissy, what he'd called his wife. And truly believing, Who I pretend to love will love me.
Did I pretend again?
It rises suddenly; the bird, flapping, thunderous, blocking out the moon. I scream, an Ahhh!, balance lost and reeling back, the sheet billowing away. Raven settles on a marble bust atop the doorway. I'm pressed against the headboard, scared and goosebump cold, watching a single white feather hang in the draft, floating over the wrinkled hills of the coverlet, but dipping finally, tumbling zigzag and landing next to my hand.
He gazes down, yawns, shifting his profile. I return the gaze and feel him entering me through my eyes, the pain severe, sinking deep, and deeper still; wings, like Sister Agnes' whip, beating at the soul. Does he see the shame; does he know? If I were a bird I'd be a raven, my feathers the blackest of all.
The two of us: buddy-buddy, I guess. Three weeks in the same room and I've bonded outside my species. We endure Agnes together. We wait for Mary Elizabeth's Easter bleed. He's a friend.
Big Boy hops onto the bed, waddles the length of the gray wool blanket, mumbling to himself. He sticks his head under the pillow and starts to burrow. My stomach constricts, acid stinging at the bend of the throat. Quit it. Can't you just leave things be? I hear a muffled squawk. Only his black and white tail is visible. It's fanning the air as he squirms away, dragging the wooden handle in his beak, the serrated blade slipping from beneath the pillow and glinting the moon. Big Boy drops the kitchen knife on my lap; glances at me with an empathic, What's Your Problem? look.
Would he understand? Friendships do have limits; this one, especially. "...Too smart for your own good," I say, angry at his invasion. "You're j-just a bird, y'know."
I get indignant when I'm frightened, indignant and regal. But I won't be like Sisters Agnes and Mary Elizabeth, their self-hatred painted up as sacrifice, Our Ladies of the Whips and Miseries. I'd sooner die. They're no different than Momma. The lunatic's in them, feasting on the heart, an insidious hunger.
My hand clutches the knife. I retreat to the opposite side of the chamber, trying to lose myself among the shadows, trying to be invisible again - out of sight, out of mind. But it doesn't work. Though my back's to him, I swear I feel Big Boy's eyes, that gaze. I fantasize his devotion and anticipate his punishment. Mine is a peculiar talent, re-organizing secret fictions, an alchemist of the worse type, inventing love then inventing the rust.
Let's not kid ourselves. Agnes, Mary Elizabeth and I have always been sisters. Life here fits too well.
The screech pierces the chamber, deafening, amplified by brick and stone. I turn; see the wings sweeping wide, the raven flying toward me. His shape blurs, lost to the beams of carlights coming through the narrow window. It's happening fast. I'm not ready, just peaking between fingers; the bird, transforming in mid-flight, a mass of snowy feathers doing the unpredictable, swooping into the knife. Blood sprays my hands, my lips and eyelashes. His white body is speckled red, sagging heavy on the blade.
I believe nothing: neither these new feathers nor the impaled and bleeding chest; certainly not his death. A stupid, depraved pet trick, I'm convinced, perhaps taught by the previous owner. I hold him and toss the knife. Metal clatters on stone. When I brace his lolling head with my thumb, I start to scream but there isn't any sound, the moments stubborn like syrup, an interminable expanse until the sound. "- What've you done! Why? What've you done?"
Take me home. Big Boy's words drift from the shaded corners of the chamber. Bury me. I'm watching the glossy half-shut eyes, the beak parted but motionless.
Momma said she heard Daddy for months after their divorce, a timid voice behind the closet door. He'd plead with her not to kill him.
I lay the folded habit on the bed near my knapsack. Wearing street clothes at last: jeans stringy over the knees, scuffed black Nikes, and a William and Mary sweatshirt. I've wrapped Big Boy in a pillowcase. Did he think such an absurd stunt would save this Lady of the Phantom? His body fills the knapsack, nylon stretched to include the knife.
Once the raven's buried, I'll finish my own business before I lose the nerve. Everything you touch dies.
Whose fault, Momma?
It's the mother-daughter fight I should've avoided, the one we did in the hospital.
Daddy came to me, Momma, locking up the bedroom, sneaking into the sheets - your frightened husband -, muttering stories to a child.
You had the knife then. That's what he said; couldn't get any sleep with the blade at his throat, he said, and pointed to the scars, tiny cuts along the neck. I listened to his stories, talk of a madwoman and her paranoid love, dark as something by Mr. Poe; smelled the whiskey too, not one night but many. He'd stroke me on the cheek, the breasts; his fingers, tucking under the elastic of my cotton panties: your lover, the thief.
Whose fault, Momma?
Digging isn't difficult. The ground still feels damp, soft from yesterday's rain. I'm burying Big Boy near a maple in back of Mr. Poe's house. Both hands claw out a hole. My hair keeps diverting the job, loose strands, muddy ends. I can't see all that great, either. Branches and spring leaves cross the moon and fracture light over the grave. I lower his body; cover the pillowcase with dirt, then quote a favorite line of verse to say good-bye: ...other friends have flown before. It's our epitaph, me and the bird.
The knife's gone.
I'd set the knapsack on a tree stump next to the maple. Now it's a foot or so to the right of the grave site, flap open, half concealed by the grass.
My neck and ears start to throb. I scan the ground, looking for a glimmer of the blade, but no luck. Rows of tall boxwood and forsythia obscure the spot. Rose bushes spike the backyard with long black arms.
What I do notice is a man's silhouette. The figure steps away from the side of the house, a darkness peeled from darkness, moving among the trees. I feel the air go cold; inhale that whiskey smell and watch the shape glide closer as my breath turns to smoke.
"...Sweet Virginia," comes the whisper.
He's keeping snug to the boxwood. Shadows hide his face. But the knife is a bright and hovering sliver, its point wavering like candlelight.
"Won't you say my name?" Squinting at the silhouette: "I don't need to pretend anymore. Just say my name, Eddy. I'm not afraid; I'll be with you."
You've never left him. Another voice, sing-song, gentle, this one sifting down through the branches of the maple. It's Big Boy, actively deceased and inching along a tree limb toward me, the moon shimmering his white feathers, the white beak and talons. He stops to pick at the blood on his chest. Only the wound is black. Then I hear, Get a grip, Angelica. You steal your own life. You're the thief.
Oh? Does Sister Agnes have a better love; Mary Elizabeth and Grace? Perhaps mine's a less holy ghost. But I ignore the bird, or whatever's decided to haunt that maple, probably some ridiculous hallucina -
I see Eddy! His silhouette drifts from the boxwood, heading for me, the face like porcelain under the night sky.
Forget him. Big Boy grumbles, squawks muted, the way static plays off a radio. Why abuse yourself?
Looking into Eddy's eyes; dragged into childhood through his eyes, the shame of a fake romance: I use to dance for him. Naked Little Sissy. I'd watch the bedroom mirror until the glass fogged a circle, rubbing my breasts and stroking myself wet, imagining my hands were his hands.
Don't you know who he is?
Knife and arm rise, Eddy's chin lifting slightly, and I stare at his neck.
Don't you know?
Scars web the throat.
...Yeah, I do now.
I feel the whole yard tilt, heart kicking the chest, an anger so abrupt and fiery that I strike him, no concern about the knife. I'm hitting at what's there and what isn't, both fists, hitting at anything I can hit; yelling, "Y-You sonuvabitch! Sonuvabitch!" and sobbing too. Tears splinter the moonlight like a prism. My nails rake his face, wanting to hurt him bad, as much as I'd been hurt, wanting to twist the shame around and be done with it, crazier than Momma.
He let's me go on and on; doesn't fight back; doesn't once try to end the assault or protect himself. And the knife falls, metal flashing against the dark lawn. I reach for him. My fingers sink past his shoulders, twice, three times, grasping the air instead of flesh, getting frantic and clawing to find the bone. But his shape is becoming transparent, the details smeared. Heat ignites the wall of my stomach. I refuse lose him again. Dear Lord. How can I love someone I hate?
Daddy, please; Daddy, stay and hold me, and I'm embracing the last threads of the silhouette, a chilly emptiness; vapor, breaking up in my arms. I slump to the ground, dazed, the whiskey scent potent enough to burn the skin.
Say good-bye to him, Angelica. Listening to the sing-song of the raven: We'll mourn your love together.
I stare down at the knife, silver cleaving the weeds, feeling numb; thinking outloud, "...Birds don't talk like this."
And I hear Big Boy's laughter, delicate, melodic, coming from the lowest branch of the maple tree. Look, sis, I suffered for you. Get it? That's my job. Then the voice is behind me. I suffer for the both of us.
A hand touches my head. I'm curled up, muddy knees cold in the grass, afraid to move, to breathe, to do anything. When I peak through a drape of hair, I see the night turn sunny, an unexpected incandescence. He's still behind me, voice softer than the touch; saying, You are blessed, Angelica. I've always had a passion for strange women. Pain splits the numbness, does it on cue: pain with teeth and the knack of finding hideouts; my chest, heaving cries, delivering what I have...what I know...what I am
into those waiting hands.
© Ron Savage 1996, 1998
'Nuns in Love' first appeared in Tomorrow Speculative Fiction in 1996.
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