by Alexandra Noe
The car started turning up just after I’d been accepted and received my uniform, which differed from the one I’d worn before as a postulant. For ten months I’d been confined to a starched white, button-down shirt and a black, pleated wool skirt, longish, covering my knees. The stiffness chafed against my scars, the worst across my tender belly with its fleshy, tentative skin. In spite of the discomfort, at the age of thirty-seven, I looked like a schoolgirl. The dissonance was shocking, confusing. To be dressed like a child, asking, requesting, begging for admission, felt crueler still. This formalized shaming felt at odds with the ethos that I’d assumed would permeate the emotional landscape of the place. But I endured because I wanted to be let in, whatever bit of myself that was real and left over and could still selfishly pursue things. Once I had the habit, I was sure things would be different. Strangely, paradoxically, once I had this material thing, I felt sure the physical part of me wouldn’t matter anymore.
The car appeared to be waiting on schedule. We—my sisters and I—would rise at five, a time that seemed to be ensconced in a perpetual form of darkness. Maybe that’s why our church elders of old had chosen it—a poetic time that always wore a symbolic shroud. I was happy with the darkness. In fact, I resented that spring was at hand and more light on the way. Better the somber winter and its quiet deadening. All the same, I opened the curtains of the dormitory to let in the last bits of night. And there, not far off down the gravel lane lined with linden trees—thirteen on each side, unlucky—were two glowing beams of yellow radiance—headlights—corrupting the emptiness I’d come to seek.
We were situated precisely in the middle of nowhere, a purposeful kind of nowhere. If you didn’t hail from this particular patch of abandon, it was very easy to get lost in it, to make a right turn or a wrong turn and wind up on some dusty road that might never end. It seemed that the extent of my contact with the outside world lay in giving directions to lost souls—a task I endured and tried not to mind. The sight of a car on our road was nothing peculiar then. No matter that it was so early—or perhaps for this driver, so very late. I asked myself whether my apostolic duties impelled me to run out and help—to provide the assistance I had frequently given—but the call to morning prayer had been made and it was a timely, routinized affair. I left the window and the dormitory, adjusting my new habit as I chased after the flowing skirts of my sisters.
The car was nowhere to be found after mass, and I didn’t think about it again. In fact, I tried not to think about much of anything, to achieve a mental solemnity. My days, by the strictures of our vocation, were regimented with prayer, study, and spiritual reading—the doctrinal life of the mind. I began to miss my postulant’s duties, like hanging laundry and scrubbing floors. Lowliness had allowed me to bow my head in submission to emptiness. I became increasingly convinced that these sorts of tasks were a greater assurance for the removal of sin from the world by virtue of eliminating the self—the guilty party that performed wickedness.
My sisters, I began to detect, possessed different spiritual imperatives. The loftiest was the proximity to Christ and his holiness, and then their aims descended down into tiers of magnitude: from the salvation of souls to the triumph of world peace and the annihilation of evil; then to the more earthly and mundane, like prayers for an early spring, or the vitality of Sister Katherine’s sprouts and seedlings, for which she’d engendered an almost pagan reverence. I had wanted only the habit and nothing more. I thought once I’d been released, through acquisition, of this sole desire, I would be free of all other concerns, relinquished to a life of rote, predictable ritual.
Instead, our daily studies grew increasingly sour the more fervently I applied myself. It seemed I could not relate to my sister’s noble intentions—the way to their path appeared barred to me. In response I began, with what design I wasn’t sure, to attempt to disassemble their characters. I wanted to understand their true motives: what, if any, virtues they possessed, but more importantly, which vices they harbored. It felt incumbent upon me to evaluate their earnestness, to settle, finally, whether they were pure and truthful, or conniving and duplicitous—wearing a mask in an attempt to fool not only God, but the rest of us.
I decided to first surveil Sister Katherine, to ferret out some illicit secret agenda or identify pride and wanting in her heart. I made it a point to sit beside her at mass—to study her at close range—in order to measure her faithful recitation of Holy Prayer. I managed only to notice that she smelt like something sweet and starchy, like bread pudding or overcooked rice. She reminded me, I realized, of my grandmother, long dead, and I had a preternatural urge to hide among the folds of her long frock, like a child seeking playful shelter. It was necessary, I resolved, to go further.
During recreation time the next day, I followed her to the greenhouse, feigning interest in her seeds and sprouts. Tell me everything, I said, with an intensity I didn’t recognize in myself, agitatedly thumbing over the scar tissue that spanned my arm, beneath my tunic’s sleeve. She smiled, then gave a penitent look, slowly pushing her cumbersome glasses up her large, protruding nose. I spent all of the free period that day with her like this, studying what she did, learning what constituted her knowledge. By the end, I felt, with strange relief, but also pain, that she was beyond reproach. She was able to summon up life from blackness. It was possible she was performing magic. I was impressed by her piety and saddened at my own personal deficit. I attended prayer that night with a new mustering of humility, thankful to Sister Katherine as I had never been, in a way I’d never known myself to be. I lay my conspiratorial campaign aside in an act of self-granted absolution.
Calm reigned over me for several days thereafter. My anxiety quieted, and the defamatory whisperings that had occupied my ears ceased to chatter. I did not miss them. Instead, I felt the silence return. Waking in the mornings with my sisters, I recalled the peace I had sought in this life and felt it possible to be achieved. I barely thought of my body—indeed I felt like its edges could soon be undetectable.
But my reverie would not last. One morning at the dark hour of our waking, I opened the sackcloth curtains of the dormitory only to be met yet again by the twin shafts of light cast from the distance of the lane. They were static. I felt the fullness of recognition creep through me.
The car didn’t move; it idled in the same place it had been last time, a faint excretion of exhaust detectable at its backside, rising up in slow unfurling movements like incense from a thurible. This time I did not wonder whether I should run to its aid. I took the penetrating light in the darkness to be some sort of spotlight—a jury of one—illuminating my insufficiency, my infiltration of this holy order as an imposter. I did not bother—how could I even begin?—to mention the car or its condemning light to my sisters. I rose to the specter of that threat and, with a deep breath and a hanged man’s calm, closed the curtains. I left the room. I went to mass.
For some time, a few weeks perhaps, thoughts of the car did not leave me. Those two headlights, like seeing eyes, seemed to follow me around through the days and all my duties. I entered the dormitory in the evening with a pronounced agitation for what might lay ahead of me in the night. I dreaded what I might come to find, or what would come to find me, in the morning. I began to dress in haste when we rose, forgoing my routine of opening the curtains altogether, always making certain that I was not the last left alone in the empty room. Who was I afraid of? Was it God? At mass, I prayed with a desperation that I hadn’t known myself to possess. I made sure to sit beside the most ardent of my sisters in an effort to be caught in their direct channel to the divine—a way to prove my penitence and assure the higher power of my resolve. I moved closely in their shadows throughout the day in order to be found in the orbit of their halo from above.
I trailed behind Sister Josephine, who had been at the convent the longest, and may indeed have been the oldest. Discernment was difficult, however, as it seemed that after enough time, we sisters were all destined to morph into the same aged and yet ageless entity. While she didn’t talk about her life before her vows, it was more than common knowledge that Sister Josephine had had a son who died in childhood, and she took the veil not long after. A miasma of tragedy seemed to follow her, even after all these years, and it gave a gravity to her piety. I wanted to be stained by it through proximity and clung to her elbow at every opportunity.
I stayed by Sister Margaret as well, another stalwart of our sisterhood. She’d been abandoned in infancy in the apse of a church and reared at an orphanage run by nuns within our order. She spoke of it often, about finding a new family in Christ. Before, it had only and always seemed anecdotal—personal to the point of collective inconsequence—but now it took on the power of poetry, of mighty allegory. I was in raptures at the idea of being taken in and never leaving, of always being home. I wanted Sister Margaret to be my anchor, my ballast, my beacon. I wanted her to love me and fight for me should I be taken away, by God or God knows who, in the night.
Because I had cast these women in the role of my shield from danger, I revered them in an almost childlike way. In our study hours I rapturously listened to them expound on their ideas of charity, devotion, order, faith. I let myself love their words and all the gentleness in their movements. I began to feel the contours of our shared life, the logic behind the sequestered architecture of our existence. Collectively, we could keep the outside world at bay if we could stay preserved just like this. I prayed for it, holding onto the gold cross that dangled from my neck as I moved like a shadow through empty rooms.
The current of the air changed when men arrived. Despite the cosmogonic arrangement my sisters and I were able to give our cloistered world, there were still tasks and duties that needed tending to which we couldn’t perform ourselves. For these, lay helpers would come to us once every month or so, to clean gutters, mow the mighty lawn, and fight disharmony in the arenas of plumbing and electrical wiring, which seemed to plague our old buildings. I recognized our need of their help but resented their presence, though my sisters seemed honor bound to them.
The helpers were said to be committed in their faith and stoic in their duties, and as thanks, we were to share our humble meals with them. With regularity my sisters looked forward to the sight of a certain set of familiar faces, one of whom was a doleful Irishman with windbeaten cheeks and indecipherable tattooed letters across his knuckles. His figure, even his manner, all told of a past that, while redeemable in the eyes of our faith, was nevertheless sordid. But he hailed from a country of God, and so my sisters, without a second thought, took him in as a man in good standing with the Lord—lulled, I was sure, by the quaintness of his brogue.
I’d never discovered how this man had found himself in our remote corner of the world. I assumed it was some sort of self-assigned perdition, given that he hardly spoke and never smiled, though I wondered if the same might not be said of me. I had taken no pains to ascertain his biography in the past, but thoughts of the car—its likely nefarious intent, and this man’s likely degenerate past—made me believe that there was something he might know, some investigatory pursuit I could chase down in him.
I found him one afternoon sitting alone at the end of the long communal dining table, his ginger head poised disconsolately over a bowl of gruel. Chamomile tea? I offered with false mirth as I slid in across from him, the pot in my hand jouncing ever so slightly with nerves. No, thank you, sister, came his reply in a tone that was scoured and measured. He did not look up. It gave me cover to spot the widening net of wrinkles that were spreading around his eyes.
My meekness got the better of me and I could no longer keep to addressing his face. I gave my attention to his hands, one cuffed coarsely around the handle of a spoon and the other clenched in a tight ball, resting heavily on the table. The tattoos on his fingers surely spelled out something, but I could not decipher it. They had taken on the same blue hue as veins seen through pearly white skin. Now they merely looked like runes, and perhaps they were.
Talking now to that portentous script on his hands and wringing my own, I asked, falteringly, how he’d stumbled upon our sisterhood, being that he was so far from his homeland. It’s too long a story sister, he said slowly, still not looking up, and likely not suitable for this holy house. He continued at his food.
I did not know how to scale this man’s high emotional wall. I felt sweat collect beneath my veil at the back of my neck and an internal urgency that bounced around in the place just above my bladder. Compulsively I ran my hands across my stomach, tracing the familiar raised lines as they protruded through my tunic, sensing the lurching in my guts beneath. I stopped myself, instead reaching for my tea as a way to buy time, blowing on the yellow surface of the mug. It was only to stall—it had long since turned cold. The prospect of getting answers seemed to be slipping through my fingers.
Why—Why do you think someone would want to come here? I blurted out, surprised at my own candor and lack of grace. At this, he lifted his eyes to my face, his upper lids forced into his brow in a look of consternation. I suddenly worried my question had been too direct, too quick to the point, too unexpected in mood and content. I hadn’t spoken to a man in so long, I worried that I no longer knew what I was doing.
I’m not sure I understand your question, sister, he finally said, in a tone that regarded me as treasonous. I guess, I stammered, aware that I was losing my feeble purchase, I guess—yes, I guess it’s a strange question. But I have, well, been reflecting on what would draw a person here. I took a ragged breath, unsure of how to proceed.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve—it sounds odd to say it out loud—but I’ve seen a car late in the night, on the lane. Here I paused to measure how he reacted to my report.
A car? he asked, circumspect.
Yes, a car. It idles there with its headlights on. I’ve seen it a couple times. Sometimes I think I can hear it out there, just waiting in the dark. I examined his face for some recognition, any giveaway at all.
Waiting, you say?
Yes. Yes, it feels like it’s just waiting.
He seemed agnostic. He took a few more mouthfuls of food, chewing methodically. I watched the movements of his jaw, like pistons firing in an engine, the muscles taut and mechanical. Perhaps he’d forgotten my question. I held my tea in front of me, too unsure of myself to even mime the act of drinking it.
So, let me be sure I have it straight, sister, he picked up out of nowhere, setting his spoon down. A car has been coming late at night and now you’re wondering over why it’s coming, and, indeed, why anyone at all would want to come here? He had managed to deliver his assessment with such concise indifference that it registered like a blow to the chest, leaving me unable to speak. Time sped up, then slowed down in the intervening silence as I scrambled to collect my thoughts.
I suppose, yes. Yes, that’s a way—the way—to put it, I faltered at last, though I had wanted to scream.
And, I’m gathering, you’re asking for my opinion as I am someone who occasionally comes to your sisterhood—not unlike this car—suggesting we must share some sort of affinity. Correct?
I was red. I could feel my skin burning from the inside out due to the accelerated pumping of my blood. I thought of it coursing through my wrecked body, the volume of it contained in miles of veins and arteries. I then thought of the blood of Christ—how much his body contained, perhaps an infinite amount—spilled on the cross in the ultimate act of humility.
Our evenings of study had taught the importance of this act, its inextricable link and predication on humiliation. I tried to find some sort of mirror between us, Christ and me, some similarity in our trials, our pain, borne amongst people but carried alone, his blood and my blood, his humiliation and mine. Except Christ had turned the other cheek, was able to forgive, radically, in every measure. I, instead, was filled now with rancor and bitterness. I hated this man for making me hate my own failings, my weakness, my flaws. I hated him for making me aware of the things I knew I deserved to hate in myself.
It’s a foolish inquiry, you’re right, I said in mocking self-censorship, then stood and began to gather my mug and teapot, even the one I’d brought for him that he’d left untouched.
Forgive me, forgive me, sister—I didn’t mean to offend. The trilling of his accent carried the tremorous tones of his voice. Please, sit back down. It wasn’t my intention to dismiss you. I froze in place and then lowered myself slowly back onto the long wooden bench, meeting his contrite gaze with my critical, cutting one.
To be honest, he said after a moment’s hesitation, it’s hard to be asked such a question. Maybe it’s because I haven’t thought about it, or I have, but not really. I was raised in the church—I haven’t known any different. He let out a long breath and looked away from me.
I always thought it was quite mystifying, the whole spectacle of it. I loved the seriousness of the nuns I knew when I was a child. I trusted them, always more than the priests—maybe that’s the wrong thing to say, sister, but it’s true.
He stared off, somehow now dissolving into the picture of a young boy, all fidgety arms and legs and roaming eyes. He seemed to struggle to collect himself, to reconfigure his mind and body to the setting of our dining hall.
Yes, maybe that’s the wrong thing to say, he said at length, but it’s the way I feel and have always felt. Throughout my life, in good times and plenty bad, I’ve always felt drawn to the solace of the convent. To tell the truth, there is such a great chasm between the convent and the monastery, something I must have understood even when I was small. The difference is that the women came transformed by loss, and the men because they were called to God. I don’t mean to say you haven’t heard the call, sister, please don’t mistake me. But it can be—it is—an ugly world out there. I don’t imagine you sisters arrive here whole, is what I’m saying.
We’re broken, you mean?
The world is broken, sister. We’re all broken—some more than others. Maybe—indeed, I’m sure I am—one of those more broken souls. But that’s what draws me here. I don’t know if that answers your question. I’m unsure if that helps.
It helps, I whispered, nearly voiceless. I gently smoothed the folds in my tunic across my disfigured skin beneath. My flushed cheeks drained, and my anger dissipated to nothing, like a fire that extinguishes itself by having consumed every last bit of fuel. I sensed some sort of return to myself, or more precisely, the emptying of myself of before, from my postulant days. His words had cleansed me somehow, had made me feel clean. Quiet settled over us, and I let it. I had no need or desire to speak about anything more.
I stopped thinking of the car. The days passed into weeks and were different than the ones from before, but they contained their customary routine. I cherished how little I needed to think about—the familiarity and reliability of confines and limits. I listened more and spoke less and less. Even the voice in my head became muffled, like a radio turned low. My sisters took on a greater realness to me than I did to myself, and I was thankful for the relief, the release. It was hard to tell anymore what I had wanted in coming here. I now felt so far from want and wanting.
I studied with my sisters or read alone until the end of our communal day, then prepared for bed in the dormitory alongside them. I removed my veil and wimple and placed them tenderly beside my cot. We showed our total devotion even in sleep, so that after unfastening the cord around my waist, I was ready to slip between the pilling bedsheets, always grateful for this act of modesty. Sister Katherine was usually the first to bed, her snoring already ringing through the room in a deep, rhythmic monotone, like furniture being dragged across the floor. It was steadying and calming, almost like a lullaby. I counted the humanity of these movements as blessings.
I thought of nothing, lying there in the dark awaiting inevitable sleep. Even if I had, I couldn’t speak it to anyone. The penultimate hour of the day began the Profound Silence, a time of perfect quiet, solitude, and rest, which lasted until we rose again. In my postulant days I’d told myself the Profound Silence was an invitation to patiently listen—that this was the chosen period in which God would call. Every night, I closed my eyes against the dark room and waited, my hands clasped over my chest. I didn’t notice now whether there was the sound of an engine softly idling on the lane. I waited only for the call to break through.
Alexandra Noe is a multi-disciplinary artist with a focus on ceramic sculpture. Originally from New York, she earned her BA in Philosophy from New York University, and received an MA in Biblical Studies from King’s College London. Her studies provide context to common themes in her writing, which primarily deals with the inherent power or weakness of perception, and the false or true sense of proximity to the divine. Her sculptural work tackles abstracted figurative forms, modifying archetypal female tropes and devotional iconography. She currently resides in Denmark as an artist and technician at an international ceramics residency.