Amid the fuss of a bustling marketplace, two nuns dispute the virtue of a “medicine” with the potential to “cure” one of their fellow sisters…
by: Niki Tulk
It was a warm July day in 1953 in the bustling mountain city of San Margot. The two women were swathed in white; they teetered above the pavement as they crossed the square, which ran with mud and excrement from the overflowing drains. Coifs hid their hair, and the starched linen merged into their pale faces giving them the appearance of smooth white eggs. They moved in tandem, it was a dance, one hand deftly lifting the thick hem of her habit, the other coiled around her partner’s arm, their round eyes tending their steps.
“Watch yourself, Sister Agnes, the dogs have been here!”
Like their light but definite tread, their words strung upon each other like notes on a stave — syllables moving in three-four time, in quarter notes and quavers, a cloistered waltz in the midst of a raining market day.
Sister Anna steered them both away from the rotting head of a fish that trailed some remaining cords in the mud, now the color of jasper.
San Margot was a city of poets and wanderers, of desperate merchants and brazen tourists. On one side of its magnificent town square, with its statue of Francisco the Great in bronze, surrounded by gigantic griffins, San Margot housed the poor in a thick matt of ancient streets that sweltered in summer, froze together in winter and ran with sewerage and mountain run-off in the spring. Here too was the hospital, and close by the railway station, where travelers and goods arrived and departed according to a busy, efficient schedule.
On its other, more fashionable side — terraced, and with an unfettered view of the mountains — San Margot boasted museums and a magnificent concert hall. Here the rich decorated their boutique apartments with Moroccan plates and French tapestries, or large colorful prints in the cubist or futurist style.
Between these two halves of San Margot lay the market. Behind the statue, presiding over the entire city at its highest point was Our Lady of Sorrows Church, and it was out of this building that Sister Agnes and Sister Anna had emerged, askance at the cacophony of the teeming square, the rush of rain.
“The way becomes more difficult, less of a pleasure,” Sister Agnes murmured.
“Pleasure is the not the reason we are out today, Sister Agnes, and don’t I know, I was the one who found Sister Berta fainted in the chapel, and she had been ill for days since—”
“Not days,” countered Sister Agnes. “Weeks. Ten weeks.”
“You sound very certain.”
“I am.” Sister Agnes allowed her last two words a discreet entry into the air, where they dissolved immediately in the damp. She felt Sister Anna’s fingers press into her arm, perhaps her companion had heard, perhaps not. It was safer, ruminated Sister Agnes, if not — the slight woman beside her possessed a knack of repeating to The Abbess whatever might raise her own small rank. Sister Agnes distracted herself with the scent of ripening strawberries under a tarpaulin heavy with rainwater, and wished that Sister Anna would not clasp her arm quite so firmly. Both their sleeves, she noted, had now greyed with moisture. “Imagine the days of Noah, Sister Anna.”
“That I cannot do.”
They stepped delicately close by the strawberries, and a wave of longing swept through Sister Agnes. “Do you think Noah was right to not open the door to even one more?”
Sister Anna’s wide white face was suddenly framed with the fruit behind her that she had not, it appeared, smelt nor even seen. “Sister Agnes, surely God closed him in.”
The clouds sighed open and for one sweet moment the blue they knew was always there gazed down, and they paused in their talk. It was only a moment then and once again the light dulled. They each withdrew a little from the other, as if a veil had dropped between them.
“And would you have Him merciless?” Sister Agnes’ words did not, this time, dissolve.
Sister Anna held her gaze in the way one searches a face one knew once, but cannot now remember.
“They had sinned, Sister Agnes — oh!” Sister Anna’s moral pronouncement fell on the conversation just as her foot fell on an egg that had rolled away from a nearby cart. Even amidst the shouting and caroling of vendors, the sisters both heard the thick snap of crushed shell. Yolk clotted around Sister Anna’s shoe, which now glowed raw sienna.
Not far away a drainpipe spurted rainwater, and Sister Agnes guided her companion to place her toes beneath it. The two of them watched as the egg was washed away across the cobblestones. They stayed for one more moment, mesmerized by the clear liquid force, the way it held light.
“But Sister Anna, what about the babies?”
To their left a cart wheeled by, laden with cherries, and the red was deep, like a bruise, a gathering of hearts. Sister Anna shook her foot and placed it firmly back on the path that was to be trod.
“Sister Berta needs medicine, and the abbess waits for us.”
“It may not be medicine she needs, Sister Anna.” As she spoke, Sister Agnes felt once more the press of the other’s fingertips into her forearm. But this time, Sister Agnes also felt the nails.
“The herbs are not helping, and she needs medicine from Outside.”
“Do you believe she is ill?”
“She has been tired and pale for some time now, that is certain.”
“Yes, Sister Anna, in the mornings, and—“
“At Evening Vespers.”
The two stiffened — a cat had just darted across them to avoid a bicycle, sliding its wet fur across their habits.
“I detest cats,” muttered Sister Anna. “Fighting and scavenging and leaving their litters of kittens for everyone else to deal with.” They gazed at the offending feline, which had paused to lap cautiously at the remaining yolk trapped in cracks between the cobbles.
“Sister Berta is normally the one who leaves the convent to minister in the hospital wards, where she has spent untold evenings—”
The bicycle disappeared among the dripping folds of market tents, and Sister Agnes fell silent. Now, she realized, it was she who coiled her fingers tightly on Sister Anna’s arm.
“So,” Sister Anna replied tersely, “she has become ill.”
“Think of the cat, Sister Anna.”
“I don’t understand.” And Sister Anna deftly slipped, steadied herself, and fluttered one hand across her face like a fan —and within this choreography, she once again held Sister Agnes’ slender arm in her grip. Sister Agnes submitted, and again a wave surged through her, although there were no strawberries this time, only a deep and nameless pain.
“Then think of what you know of Sister Berta before, of the life she promised to live with us, but has never tried until now.”
Sister Agnes heard her own voice stammer words she had only whispered with Sister Berta, after dusk had disappeared in the apse, words that had been compressing her tighter than any coif, any hand. Together, she and Sister Berta had extinguished the candles, one by one.
“Sister Anna, Berta is not ill, she has not been at the hospital only to visit the sick…and now she is with—”
“Sister Agnes.” Sister Anna’s voice came low, unshaken. “There are rules regarding the way we speak of each other, and I fear you may be about to transgress them.”
But she understood. The music of their talk had modulated. The situation became cubist, all angles and borders and colors clashing — strange geometry where there should have been only soft curves and paths she recognized.
Sister Agnes tilted her face towards the other, and scoured her with round, strong eyes.
“Sister Anna, if we may not talk of it, then who can? For something will be done.”
Sister Anna replied, pianissimo. “I am sure things will be arranged. But until then, silence.”
“The medicine, Sister Anna, what is it?”
“The Abbess said it was best.”
The two women were still now; around them the market tumbled and swarmed with people, litters and litters of people.
Sister Agnes spoke like a held breath. “I will not buy this medicine, Sister Anna.”
“It is what is ordered, Sister Agnes.” She paused, then added, as if the abbess could hear her even in the roar of the market, “and our own pleasure is not the reason we are out today.”
But Sister Agnes knew that the woman next to her twisted inside her robe. Their arms were still coiled together, they were still joined in their mission, trapped in it.
“I am not buying this medicine, Sister Anna. Not until I know that Sister Berta wishes it to be so.”
“How could she not wish it so? It is a disgrace—”
“Watch your tongue!”
Sister Agnes locked her feet in the mud, and the fish reeked and the cats hissed and the rain had turned her eyes to mist.
Neither of them moved.
It was such a hot July day, in 1953, and their habits were no longer white, but stained with the cry of the market, and the rain.
An expat Australian writer and theater-maker, Niki Tulk has published poetry and fiction in The Saranac Review Tenth Anniversary Edition, Rock River Review, The Sheepshead Review, The Feminist Wire, The Journal of Language and Literacy Education, West Trade Review and Southerly. In 2018, her novella Before Rain was a finalist for the International Miami Book Fair/de Groot Prize. She has an M.F.A. from The New School.