Sister Lumiere found her in the kitchen garden, curled up on the bare earth. Her skin was prickled with gooseflesh, and she cried out when Sister Lumiere picked her up and carried her inside. She spoke some words and Lumiere nodded, but I did not understand what was said.
The woman was shapeless, narrow, loose and weathered. She had no breasts, only tender-looking scars on her chest, and there was a thick purplish weal between her pubis and her navel. The hair on her head was thin, cut short and plastered to her scalp. She looked ill. Her skin was pink and whitish yellow, burning scarlet on her cheeks.
Stealing looks is just the same as stealing pennies. I turned away, mindful of the woman’s modesty. But she didn’t seem angry or ashamed. Her eyes were closed. Her breath was ragged, and she shook with cold. I covered her in blankets and quilts, heaping them over her, wrapping them around her until she was completely enclosed. Her breath clouded in the air, and steam rose from my vestments where the morning dew had fallen. It is cold in the priory, too cold for any but nuns to endure.
“She is not from here, I think,” said Lumiere.
I could not remember the last time we had spoken in the daylight.
“What shall we do?” I asked.
“What is there to do Nocturna? You saw yourself. She fell from the sky into our keeping.”
“Are we to keep her, then?”
Sister Lumiere kept eye contact with me for a long while. Her icy white eyes dazzled me. “I do not know,” she said at last. She gave permission to make a small fire in the room, so that we would both be warm. She had seen snow in the sky.
When night came, Lumiere went to sit with the woman in her cell. I do not know what transpired between them in those hours. It was difficult for us to understand the woman, because her German was so strange and foreign-sounding. But perhaps she and Lumiere found a way to communicate better. Or perhaps Lumiere just wanted to stay close by.
It was the first time I had lain in a bed by myself, and I found it impossible to sleep without Lumiere’s broad body warming against mine, her flank on mine, my face resting on the flesh of her shoulder. I would rather have gone to the kennel and slept with the dogs than stay on my own with no body near mine.
When the strange woman opened her eyes the next early morning, we were there to receive her and give blessings and prayers. Lumiere unwrapped her from the cocoon and gave her a clean wool dress to wear. She held her hands and pushed her arms into the sleeves, like she was a little girl.
It did snow, as Lumiere had predicted, early that morning. Flakes as big as goose down fell on the garden, landed on the piercing spires of the priory, and floated through the open roof of the chapel. Cold white fingers hung over all the stone windows. It covered all our ruins and all our good works. Lumiere found our boots out from the closet and we took turns tending to the hens and goats in the barn. The woman walked in the garden, round and round the wall, brushing her fingers through the snow.
“There’s no gate,” she said in her stiff German. She was standing in the kitchen doorway, half her body still out in the falling snow. “I can’t find the way out.”
Lumiere smiled at her, and briefly touched her hand. But the woman flinched and strode away. Her movements shimmered with violence, a silver-white shadow she cast all around her. She was a hard person to understand, Lumiere said, but I didn’t know, didn’t have any comparison. I couldn’t remember other people, except vaguely; their faces receded into the distant past. They seemed to be all the same, all their features like Lumiere’s. But why should I remember them at all? My earliest memory was of watching the wall being built around us, when we came here to live. It took them a year, and then we never again saw a foreign hand or eye raised above the bricks, or heard voices from behind the wall. I did not miss them. Lumiere was everything to me: mother, playmate, sister, friend, companion, nurse. And God was also always with us.
The woman, whose name was Joan, did not belong here. Her dreams disturbed the priory. The hens stopped laying. Owls perched high on the wall, orange eyes burning through the dark, unwilling to swoop and pierce the mice and shrews in the garden. Even the dogs would not go near her, and cowered from her when she went past, crying with their tails between their legs, although she showed no interest in them one way or another. The snow thickened and her footsteps flattened it, in a narrow path she made under the wall. She walked around the perimeter at least once every day. It took her an hour and a half to do the circuit, brushing her fingers along the brick so two icy lines became grooved in the snow on the wall.
Lumiere brought her fruit to eat and gave her books from the library, books that I myself had not been allowed to see. Joan read all the time, an apple in one hand, book in the other. She ignored me, mostly, but she called for Lumiere several times a day, calling her name out loud so it rang through the walls. No one had ever raised their voice here before. Lumiere and Joan spent hours with their heads bent over books, whispering and discussing, whilst I prayed and worked, worked and prayed, and at night, because I still could not sleep alone, I walked around the priory and around the wall. One of the dogs, Florian, took to following me. Perhaps he enjoyed the exercise, or the companionship. When I stood still, he pressed his head against my leg and I patted him and stroked his ears. This was all the touch I shared in several weeks.
Lumiere spoke to me one afternoon as I was cooking soup. Florian sat at my feet, as was usual. He never went far from me anymore. Lumiere crouched and rubbed the dog’s neck, so when I looked down, it was as though she was kneeling before me. She looked back at me with her white eyes, brightened by tears, and before I could speak, put her arms around my knees and pushed her face into my skirts. She didn’t move at all for several moments. Florian nosed his way into the embrace, too, and I pushed neither away. I wanted to stir the soup, but I dared not disturb Lumiere. After a while, she pulled away from me and sat, with a deep sigh, at the table.
“You are good, Nocturna,” she said. “You are so good. I am afraid, and you are good.”
I did not know what she was speaking of. The soup was thickening and the colour grew deep as I stirred.
“What must you be thinking? I fear that I have done wrong. Are you not afraid?” Florian put his head in Lumiere’s lap, and she absently stroked his ears.
“I’m not afraid,” I said. “I have never had cause to be afraid, and you have never taught me to be so. I will pray for you, Lumiere, if you are frightened. God will comfort us.”
Lumiere nodded. “You are very good, sister.”
I was not good. But I had never known anything of the world outside the priory, and I had never known anything except Sister Lumiere, the dogs, the garden, prayers and work, for all my years. I knew that Joan was something new, something the sky had birthed into our world; I knew she made me lonely by taking my sister from me and reading books that were meant to be kept closed. But I was not afraid of her. For all things come from God and in my heart I never feared anything sent by Him, nor questioned it either.
Lumiere said I should stay with Joan that night. Since that first time, I had never spent more than a few moments alone with her, but I was not frightened.
After supper I went to Joan’s cell, and sat in the wooden chair as she paced slowly up and down the room. Each step looked like it cost her in pain, like she was out of her element; perhaps the cold had got into her bones. She could have stopped walking at any time, but she kept on a long while into the night. She was praying, also. Her hands fluttered from forehead to chest and sternum, and she also knelt with her head bowed for a time. She prayed, I think, in her own language, which I did not understand, but when she addressed me, it was in a broken German that was a little easier for me to follow. She had learned much from Lumiere.
When the moon rose, she washed in plain water and put on a long nightdress. Lumiere came in then, and the two women hugged. Like sisters, or soldiers.
“Let’s pray together,” said Lumiere.
She knelt at the side of Joan’s bed, and they silently prayed.
When Lumiere left the room, I took up my bible and read to myself. I was aware of Joan’s eyes upon me, and I looked over to her.
“Would you like me to blow out the candle?”
She shook her head, very faintly. “I want to go home.”
“I cannot help you,” I said.
“You could leave,” said Joan. “We both could. Don’t you want to leave?”
“Leave?” A thought like this had never crossed my mind. Now, suddenly, it seemed strange that I had never thought it. Was my world really so complete that I wanted for nothing outside it?
Joan laughed. “You have never thought of it.” She was sitting up in the bed, her short thin hair sticking out around her head like a halo.
“Please don’t speak anymore. Sleep now.” I opened my bible again, and tried to focus on the Latin words, so small and difficult in the candlelight. I did not look up the next time Joan spoke.
“I’m ill. I need drugs. I have to go back. Did you hear that, Sister Nocturna? Cancer. I have cancer.”
I pretended that I did not hear her. I didn’t understand her words.
“I don’t understand you,” I said, leaning forward and speaking slowly. “You do not make sense. What do you want from me? What do you want?”
Joan reached out and grabbed my hand in both of hers. “I want to go! I want to leave here. She knows! That is why she left you here tonight.”
“I cannot help you,” I said, wriggling my hand out of her grasp.
“Open the window,” she said. “Please. You have the key. Open it.”
I imagined Lumiere, sleeping in our bed, untroubled by this madwoman, and felt a burst of anger. I opened my mouth to let it out, a short hot sigh. The woman in the bed made an answering sound, and then she was silent. After a long while, I closed my eyes.
Please understand. Since that time I have read all of those books. I have held the hands of others who were possessed in this way, those who Lumiere brought to us. I speak only to inform. Let us bend our heads in prayer.
I am silver and white, like my mother. I move like a car, fast and burning, burning on a tarmac black strip bisecting the orange horizon. I dream of motorways, of fast food restaurants, of sex in sweaty bedrooms; dreams piled one on top of another like carpets in a bazaar. And last night I dreamt of eggs breaking in a pan, of butter splashing over eggs. Pain au chocolate dipped in hot coffee, on a cold morning, in a warm bed, in winter, in Paris. Paris! Standing with Wolfgang at the open window, my arms around his waist, my breasts pressed against his back. Even in my dream, I knew his heart was empty. Then I woke up, and there was frost on the blanket and the two nuns were standing over me with their hands folded. I screamed bloody murder.
I demanded that they give me a pen and paper and tell me what day it is. I screamed for doctors, for drugs, for a morphine drip, a cigarette, but they only clutched at my hands and muttered, and I didn’t understand anything. I want them to know that I am ill. I should be in hospital, under the best possible medical care because inside I am all silver and white, glistening, sticky, miraculous. The doctors found an egg of cancer sitting on my spine. They said it was everywhere, eggs and spawn, the gross white cancer curd. I’m riddled with it; and it has riddled me. It’s in my brain, I’m sure. Either that or I am dead.
But if I am dead. If I died. Would I remember? You would think that I would know. Nothing is different. My breasts have not come back. I still have the purple scar that ropes up my belly, and I still have the pain in my head. I convince myself that I am dead, that I’m a ghost. I can manage it quite well. But then one of them brings me a boiled egg on a spoon, and it tastes thick and fatty, with a yolk so rich it’s almost red. The snow is yellow where the dogs have pissed on it. I am freezing in this tiny room, and I’m writing on thick paper with an ink pen, though my hands are shaking with cold. All of these things feel very much alive to me.
There are two nuns: Sister Lumiere and Sister Nocturna. When I was at school the nuns were all called Michael and Joseph and Thomas, men’s names. Their habits are woollen, scratchy, brown and beige, not the sharp raven-black of the convent. Lumiere is the eldest, and seems to be in charge, but Nocturna is the more solemn. She is silent. She has the nun’s glide, that’s what we used to call it, when you couldn’t hear them coming up behind you. But one of the dogs loves her, and follows behind her, and you can hear its feet skittering on the stone. Lumiere wants to talk to me all the time. She chatters away, not that I understand much of what she says. She is not very old, I think, although it’s hard to tell. Her face is wide and simple, but her eyes are eerie, irises so pale that they seem almost white. She is broad but not fat, tall but not graceful. I long to see under her wimple, to know if her hair is grey or black.
They treat me like a pet, and let me do all I wish, except leave. I walked about the grounds today. The wall goes all around, and it is so high, it makes you sick trying to see the top of it. There must be a door somewhere, a gate, a gap in the wall. I can’t find it. Sister Nocturna, the mean-looking one, watches me the whole time. She always has her eyes on me, but she does not speak.
I demanded that Lumiere let me use the telephone. I implored her, and begged her, sinking to my knees on the stone floor. A telephone, a mobile, internet, a fax machine. Anything. God help me, I cried. Help me. But she just watched, and then, when I was exhausted and sobbing on the floor, she crouched and took my hand in hers, stroking my fingers. No one has touched me gently in such a long time. And she looked at me in wonderment and said my name over and over. But all I could think was, why isn’t there a telephone? Everyone has a telephone.
There are three numbers I know off by heart. The number of the house where I grew up. The reception desk at St. Anne’s. Wolfgang’s number. If I ever found the phone, I would call my mother’s house, stir the dust with the ringing bell, ringing on the small particle of hope and unreason inside me, the idea that she might answer. And Wolfgang, the heart of my heart, the hole in my heart, Wolfgang the betrayer. I would telephone him and say, I am dead. I am so dead right now.
Lumiere let me have some books from the library. I saw Sister Nocturna watching as I carried them back to my cell. She is jealous. I don’t think she is allowed into the library. But I don’t care about her. She has a mean face and never smiles or speaks.
But the books, the unintelligible books. They don’t make sense. They are in German and Latin and French, languages I learned at school, but I can’t make head or tail of them now. I spoke German with Wolfgang every day for a year, but I hardly recognise a single word on a page. I want to throw all the books out of the window and watch them fly down over the garden like birds, pages fluttering. I want to see Nocturna’s face when her precious books fly around her head and dive into the compost heap!
There’s a dictionary in the library, French to German. Every single word I read has to be painstakingly levered and twisted and hobbled into some kind of meaning. It is not like any kind of reading I’ve ever done before. One good thing is that it absorbs me. It stops me thinking about anything else. I don’t want to think about anything else. I can’t remember anything. When I try to think back, think myself from the hospital ward to this cold prison, I can’t. It’s like snow, mental snow, a blizzard. My brain is surrounded by jagged edges, like a drawing made by a lunatic.
I am having headaches again. The cancer is in my brain. I know it. I know it is.
When Lumiere came today, she heard my confession. I made her, though she did not understand what it was meant to be for. I said, how can you be a Catholic and not know about confession? I made her sit still and listen. I don’t think she is the same kind of Catholic as I am. There are no Christs here, no martyrs, no bleeding hearts, no blue Marys.
I confessed that she reminds me of my mother. My silver-white mother. I told her how cancer was the legacy; the gift passed down. How, when my mother died, she pressed it into my hand, and curled my fingers around it, and kissed my fingers. Then she closed her eyes, and some time later, she died, and I opened my fist to see what she had bequeathed me.
I confessed other things, too. To betrayal, and to shame, those lovers’ gifts. I confessed to loneliness, the eggshell around my soul that made me so breakable. I even confessed to my joy, which is secret; a small shiny wooden nut lodged somewhere in the back of my throat.
It was a long time of talking, and very little was understood. All that passed between us were yet more words, ricocheting off high walls neither of us could breach. But it felt good to speak, to say all those things aloud. And afterwards, when I had said everything I wanted to say, Lumiere spoke. Her words meant little to me, but her voice filled me up with knowing. She spoke for a long time and with great passion. I understood that I would die, and I saw that I was loved and honoured here, in this place of passing through.
Lumiere was very interested in the confession, and later she showed me a passage in one of her books. I’ve been translating it all afternoon but I can’t understand it. Even if I can work out the words, they don’t fit together. I can’t see how they can be sentences.
Fly my angles (angels?) my rivers – teardrops?
But then there is this: I the fiery life of divine wisdom I ignite the beauty of the plains I sparkle the waters I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars.
If she lets me go tonight, I’ll keep these words as a souvenir.
It snowed all winter and nobody had any secrets from me. I knew when Nocturna walked from the kitchen to the barn, and I stood in her footprints under the library window. I followed Joan around and around the wall. Florian left big paw prints in zigzags all over the garden. And in the afternoon, new snow covered the old, and all night our rooms were lit grey and pink by the sky.
I was the only one with secrets. I hung them around my neck, under my black wool dress. Keys to the library. Of course I knew that Nocturna would never look at anything that was forbidden to her. I trusted her. But when Joan came, everything was different. I did not know how things might change, what might be said, what confidences betrayed. So I put the keys on a piece of string around my neck. They jangled when I walked.
We still prayed in the ruined chapel, in the deep snow, and when we knelt, the cold got into our knees. We brought rough wool blankets to pad underneath us, but still, the hours of prayer were long and frozen; dawn pinking the sky from a long way off, our hands shaking as we silently recited the litanies and verses. Nocturna’s face so thin and serious, so full of belief. That was one thing I envied her. She never questioned. How could she? Nocturna was a tithe. The tenth child, given to the church, as is the custom. She was given to me, her head shorn, and her face stained with tears, and I was but thirteen years old myself. This garden, our universe, seemed big enough then.
I did not share Nocturna’s convictions, even though I had taught them to her. I had not dared to do otherwise, to break the vows I’d made to them outside the wall. How could I have inflicted my own weaknesses upon her? I taught her the litanies and the transcendental prayers and the silent music. I read the bible with her, studied Latin and French, and showed her how to milk the goats and pluck the fowl, dig in for potatoes, shear the sheep and spin their wool. If anyone loved Nocturna, it was not God, but me.
My child, my heart. Nocturna the tithe. She was also a punishment. A gift, and a burden. She was a penance for me, for my crimes.
The frozen mornings of that winter saw me praying not to the glory of God, but praying nonetheless. I recited verses from the Books of Angles, and Convent Geometry and the Mother Equations. I read them over and over until I knew by heart the shapes of the numbers. When I dozed off in the little wooden chair in Joan’s cell, I dreamed I was drifting through fractallised constellations. Everywhere I touched would bloom out in endless replication, looping into caverns and bulbs and beehives and sweeping arches and curves and petals. I felt I could tapestry them. I thought about tapestries as I spun thread in the early afternoons while Nocturna worked and Joan read and wrote. I wanted brighter colours than our vegetable dyes could produce. I wanted an orange bright as sun, a peacock blue, a moon silver grey. Not these washed out muddy greens and blood reds. They were too rustic for my imagination. But I knew my verses, and I kept making the pictures in my mind as I spun and weaved the thread for our new winter dresses.
Joan disappointed me. She could not understand the verses, though she pored over them every afternoon, when the light was good. I had felt that she must know all their secrets already, but perhaps they really meant nothing to her. She didn’t know what she was looking for. And every night, when I locked the library before going to her cell, I thought of her, locked out of knowledge, an outcast. Perhaps that is why I loved her, too. I am an outcast and a criminal. I was once before, a long time ago, and now I am again.
She made me hear her confession. I had to pretend to be God, and she was a sinner; a morbid game and I felt uncomfortable playing it. Her German was odd and bright, full of words and rhythms I had never heard before. It was hard to listen to her, but not impossible to understand. She told me a long story about a person called Wolfgang.
“How strange,” I said. “That is my brother’s name. Or it was. I do not know if he lives.”
The story went that Joan and Wolfgang were lovers, but Wolfgang left her when she became ill, and a demon took her breasts and womb.
“He was weak,” said Joan. “Do you understand? He was so weak, and such a stupid man. The last time I saw him was in Paris, before my first operation. He asked me to marry him. Then he went to bring us breakfast, and he didn’t come back. He telephoned me from Nantes the next day, saying he was sorry. Sorry! As if that made it alright.”
I didn’t understand the point of the story, I admit. But somehow her words made an impression on me. I knew a Paris, a Nantes, even if only from books. I thought I could see connections, that her words were keys twisting in a lock, if only I could find the right lock to hold up to her.
“Do you know of The Book of Angles?” I asked. “It says there are universes all separated by only a film of flesh, thinner than the skin of an egg yolk.”
“No,” said Joan. “I do not want an egg.”
She made it so difficult to talk to her, but I persisted. “It says there are verses that can prick the skin between worlds. Numbers. And things can come through… People. Joan, do you understand? I brought you here. I made it possible. I found the verses.”
Joan just shook her head. After a while she left the cell, and I saw her walking in the garden, her boots stamping down on the new snow. Incomprehension made Joan frustrated. Like a child, she couldn’t handle her lack of ability, and she had no patience for learning. One day, she threw Convent Geometry across the room at me. It glanced off my arm, and did not hurt, but I gave her a reproachful look.
She stared back at me. “Do you realise that I am dying?”
“I’m sure you are not,” I said. I picked up the book and put it on the small table next to the bed.
“I have cancer, you stupid, fucking, woman.” Her face glowed, and her hands clenched into fists.
“Please try to learn the verses,” I said, not understanding her words exactly, but comprehending the violence in them. “Perhaps if you went back to the start again. You have improved.”
“No,” she said. “No, no, no, no, no. I want to go now. Let me go.” She started crying, her face in her hands. I wanted to soothe her, but I dared not touch her.
I have been a very wicked woman. They will call me a witch. They will hold me over the flames and when they do, I will remember Joan’s tears falling and freezing on the stone floor of her cell. The hard little bumps of ice all around her feet.
That night, I couldn’t bear it anymore, and I asked Nocturna to stay with her instead. In the morning she was gone.
There were books in Joan’s cell that Lumiere had given her to read. Ungodly books. Magickal books. Convent Geometry. My first thought was to burn them, to create a pyre in the garden and throw them on, and to wrestle Lumiere on top of it.
“I prayed for us,” Lumiere told me. “I made the sky give us a child.”
“You did witchcraft,” I said. She had done this here, in our heart of hearts, our home. I could not look at her. I took her woollen dress from her and left her naked in the chapel, in the snow, whilst I walked under the wall, not knowing what I was to do. I prayed so hard, God must have heard me, but no answer came. And then I realised that this was to behave exactly like Joan, trailing hands around the wall, searching for a way out.
This was not Lumiere’s home, but her prison. She had been sent here for her punishment. I heard the whole story from her that night, laced with tears and angry, bitter recriminations. She had not been a tithe, like she had told me. She was a criminal. This place, our world, our home, was her punishment. And she told me something else, a thing I had never suspected: that there was a door. There was a way in and a way out, which the builders had made when they built the wall. Lumiere had no idea if anyone outside knew of it. She said she thought it was a mistake, that it had been left open, and never sealed. She had never dared to try it at first, fearing the outsiders and the pilgrims who no doubt gathered outside the wall. Then later she did not want to go, she said, for we were together in our home, and safe. The door was underneath the floor in the barn, a very narrow, long tunnel that led to the outside world. I went to the barn to look for myself. I had to sweep away a lot of shit and mud before I found the hole, and then it seemed too narrow for a person to crawl down into. The thought of it made me feel claustrophobic, but also intensely curious.
And by this, Lumiere gave me the choice to leave or to send her away.
This I thought about for many long weeks. I prayed hard to God, asking for guidance. The truth was that the thought of leaving here terrified me, as did the thought of being left here alone.
It was my duty to punish Lumiere. For if I did not do it, who else would? We have been alone in this world. I would not trust another to deal fairly with this matter. For if I left here, they would surely come inside and burn her. And if she left, they would grab her by the scruff of her neck and throw her twisting onto the flames. Her books would be burned, and her notebooks also. Her bed would be put to fire, her clothes, her cats.
She was a criminal, but also my mother. When I tried to think of that woman who had tithed me to the Order, I could not call her my mother, my heart, my love. Lumiere was all of this to me. I would not choose to have her burn.
I made a thick cement of dung and water, and poured bucket after bucket into the hole underneath the barn. Lumiere watched me do it, sitting in the corner with her hands folded around a bible. She did not protest any of my decisions, and even when I lifted the chain of keys from around her neck and put it around my own, she said nothing, only reached out and kissed my hand.
And so I came to my peace with Lumiere.
When I woke up in hospital it was dark, and I only knew by smell that I had landed in St. Anne’s and not back at the priory. The sour bleach tang made me feel like vomiting, but my mouth and nose were packed with tubes, and I could hardly move, so in panic I thumped the side of my bed with my fist until a nurse came and helped me. She told me I had been in a coma, that I had gone straight from theatre to the ward, and never stirred for nearly a week.
But I remembered running in the dark. The dogs barking from the kennel, Florian crying, always so scared of being alone. The running was awkward, a forgotten thing. I forced myself to remember my body, hold my head up, shoulders down, stomach muscles tight. I straightened my hips, pushed them forward a little; that made my thigh muscles tense and I ran faster. My feet burned on the frozen snow, leaving wet footprints across the garden. And then I forgot I was running.
Great strides that stretched the muscles of my thighs; strides that turned into leaps, balletic leaps from foot to foot. And then, in mid-air, mid-leap, I kicked my legs wildly, like treading water. I was floating and then I just scissored upwards, pulling the sky back with my palms, like pushing myself through water. There is no secret, no mystery to it. It is just like swimming.
A determined breaststroke took me up over the wall, and over and above the priory, shadowy and white with snow. I wondered if they were awake yet, saying the first morning prayers. I flew away from the wall, over the field towards the mountains. Light broke over the sky, casting everything in shades of blue and grey. Blue hills far away, lilac heather brushed over blue hills, frosted heather, icy lilac. All around, nothing but hills and sky, sky and grass, grass and heather.
Two birds as big as eagles were riding the thermals. They were bigger than me, the colour of fire, catching the morning sun in their wings. I swam away a little, awed by their burning presence, but they flew back towards me, dragging me into their current, their undertow, warm updrafts and swells, and I laughed, and swooped and dived with them in the fresh blue air.
I flew with them until I was too tired to keep myself in the air, and then I fell to sleep in my own bed.
So I am here again.
I wanted to come back, so badly. But now I am here I am sorry. You’re no good to anyone when you’re dying. The nurses pity for me. The young ones sit with me for hours, and try to be kind. Where is your family? Can I call anyone for you? But the older nurses tut, and whisper in the young ones’ ears. They remember my mother. How alike we are, our insides so glistening and silver-white, our heads so smooth, cheeks so sunken.
Everything is taken care of. My mother’s house has been sold to strangers, and the phone number no longer rings there, but gives back a flat blue tone when I call. My clothes have been taken away to charity shops, where they will hang with the other old lady clothes, smelling of lavender and cats and plastic carrier bags. The funeral is paid for, and if I could afford it, I would hire mourners to come and wail as the cheap plywood coffin slides through the red curtains into the flames.
Now there is nothing left but to wait. It is so hard to die. It takes all of one’s strength and commitment. I am not disciplined, and never was. Memories divert me, memories of Paris, and of the priory, and of my mother. If we had not hosted this riddling guest, perhaps we would have known other, better, longer lives.
The nurses read to me, as my eyes get tired easily now. I am very specific in my wants. No stories, no romances or thrilling tales. I make them read physics books, maths books, geometry to me. They go to the library in their lunch breaks and bring back thick tomes on quantum mechanics. I tell them not to skip anything, to make sure to read out the numbers and describe all the equations. I don’t understand anything at all, but after a while I drift into the unknowingness of it, and I remember Lumiere’s voice, reading from the impossible books in her impenetrable German. I feel a chill and think that when I open my eyes I will see the nuns standing over me with their hands folded, and I will rise from the bed in my scratchy woollen dress and go out into the snowy garden. I keep my eyes closed tight, to live in that moment as long as possible. When I was there, all I had wanted was to leave, to go back to ‘normality’ – but now that place has gone, I feel bereft and long to return.
Perhaps if I close my eyes and concentrate very hard, I can go back there one more time. It is the only thing I dare to hope for. You think you understand everything about life, the shortness and futility of it. The way your body clogs up with cancer. The endless ringing of an unanswered telephone.
But there is a great mystery that exists beyond you, and it is full of meaning and power.
I the fiery life of divine wisdom I ignite the beauty of the plains I sparkle the waters I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars.
Sometimes when the nurses read to me I fall asleep and feel myself lifting up out of my body. I see the firebirds high above me, and I so want to fly again, to dart through the flimsy quivering sheath between worlds. My whole body stings with the memory of it. That is what I will miss most of all about being alive. The flying.
I was a novice once more, a poor servant of God and of the priory. I spun thread and grew vegetables and prayed for forgiveness. I prayed for hours and days, in the snow and rain. It did not matter. Nocturna compelled me. She did not care if I lived or died, but she did not want me to die a sinner.
One morning I left the chapel to find Nocturna in the garden. She had built a pyre and it was crackling with flames. I dared not ask what she was intending to burn. By this time I was scared of her.
Later she told me that after reading the books, all my books, she burned them on the pyre, so that the knowledge would die with us here. I cried very hard that night, and she curled around me in bed to comfort me, but it was too late, for I hated her. Better to die than to live in this prison without even a window into the rest of the universe.
But then Joan returned. She landed in the night, and set the dogs howling. I knew it was her. I just knew. And I hurried from my bed, pulling on my woollen overdress, not caring if I disturbed Nocturna, who had not stirred at all. I ran to the garden and found Joan crouched amongst the cabbages. She smiled up at me and sprang into my arms, hugging me ferociously, and I cried. My tears pooled in the hollow made where her collarbone jutted out.
Joan, my child. My proof.
I wrapped her in blankets and took her to the little cell where she had stayed before.
“I’m dying,” said Joan. “But it’s all right. It’s all right.”
I stayed with her, sleeping in the wooden chair in her cell. Nocturna treated her as if she were invisible, a ghost, though she allowed her to eat and wander around, as long as she stayed away from Florian, who now slept on top of Nocturna’s bed, from whence I understood I was banished forever. But Joan did not last long. Like a cut flower, she faded. One morning I woke up, my neck stiff from sleeping awkwardly on the wooden chair. The cell was empty. I understood that she would not return.
For a long time I mourned her. I grieved and I said prayers, real holy prayers for her soul. I prayed that she was flying, that she was free. But then the time for grieving was over. She would not be the last visitor here, I felt sure. I tucked my hands into my sleeves and went about my work and my prayers. I was honest, and waited for them to come.
Florian died last winter. He was old, but I had forgotten that. We were suited, he and I, each passive in our own way, each methodical in our devotion.
Sometimes I feel that I must account for what is lost to us. I catch glimpses of Lumiere’s smile, when she walks around the garden with a visitor, but she never looks at me now. She is so happy; her work is a great success. She has opened a door from our world into another, like it said in her terrible books, and the visitors who come are all like Joan, frail and full of wonder.
She believes that I would stop her, if only I could. That I would sew up the door and imprison her in this place. But I wish only for her salvation. I wish for the past to come back, when we lived sweetly alone together, and it was holy and good.
The cabbages grow limp, the hens rarely lay. I do my best but there is too much work. I noticed that Lumiere’s winter dress is full of holes. I eat very little and pray more than ever.
There is a prayer for those who come quietly, and one for those who come with great commotion. There is a prayer for those who disturb our peace. May your light flicker and fade from our sight. May we be given back our world.
Many of my stories start with a strange image or idea. In this case, it was two nuns finding a naked woman in their garden! Over the course of a year or so, I worked out their stories. I became fascinated by all three women, and how their relationships with each other developed and fell apart. To me, they always had very distinct personalities and voices. I have a special sympathy for Nocturna, who suffers so much in trying to keep her life complete and intact. The women in this story face struggles that feel very real to me.