Sis­ter Mary Teresa Bloods In

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Justin Reed

After I blood in tonight, I’ll fi­nally get my beads. But I need my brand first. We’re at Inked Habits, our spot down on the Square. The sis­ters have been com­ing here since our first Ma­jor Su­pe­rior rolled up on the frigid North Coun­try eighty-five years ago. Sis­ter Cha­banel stands at my side while our boy Javi gives his sten­cil one last go-over. Chabby’s push­ing three hun­dred fifty pounds, so when she crosses her arms, it’s a stretch to clasp her own wrists. She could crush our day care flock’s lit­tle heads like so many grape­fruits, but she’s got the sweet­est so­prano this side of the Vat­i­can eu­nuchs. Chabs was the youngest un­til I came, though she’s still got decades on me—forty long, gray years in the desert be­fore I was even born. Javi takes his throne. He’s got a sleeve of papel pi­cado tat­tooed up his right arm, its shad­ing soft as tis­sue pa­per. “Here?” he asks, gloved hand peel­ing back my wim­ple, ca­ress­ing the long vein of my neck. His two la­texed fingers are gen­tle, and they send my heart pump­ing: I want, I want, I want. But I try to re­mind my­self I’m a one-man woman now, bride of re­demp­tion and ser­vant of the Sis­ter­hood. “There,” I say, voice cooler than Pi­età’s smooth mar­ble kiss. Sis­ter Chabs pulls back her wim­ple to re­veal her own brand: St. Noël Cha­banel, hair parted like a rake re­formed, mus­tache so kempt and downy you can feel it whis­per­ing God’s words. His eyes look heav­en­ward, averted from noth­ing and no one, not even the light of his own, blaz­ing glory. St. Cha­banel, brained by a sav­age’s hatchet on the frozen Cana­dian plain. “Ink to neck,” Chabby says, “made for life. We give it all up for the one true call­ing.” “Sis­ters of the Atone­ment in this world and the next,” we say as one, and bump fists. Chabs is one bad bitch. “You sis­ters is touched,” Javi says, but he’s got this shit-eat­ing grin be­cause he knows that al­ready. We’ve been go­ing to his fam­ily and only his fam­ily since the be­gin­ning. Not like the Pre­cious Bloods. Those

hags in the 3-1-5 sum­mon their goons from Tat­toomb of Lazarus to the monastery every time they need a new teardrop inked. The Bloods worked us over years ago, stole what was most sa­cred from us. Tonight, I’m go­ing to take back what’s ours. “Let’s be­gin, oui?” Javi says, though he’s nei­ther French nor Cana­dian. Javi’s got this Castil­ian lisp and skin blacker than my tu­nic. He runs a fresh tube of stick de­odor­ant along my neck and places the sten­cil care­fully, care­fully, all be­neath Chabby’s gaze. Javi’s not ner­vous though; he’s got cold ink for blood, and when he peels the sten­cil off, he stands back and says, “Voilà.” Chabby turns my chin this way and that with her thumb, squints down at the like­ness of my name­sake, and of­fers a curt nod of as­sent. Javi oils the lines and be­gins. “Puta madre!” I yell when the nee­dles first bite down. I’ve been learn­ing Span­ish from the day la­bor­ers’ niños who fill our child­care cen­ter. Chabs lets loose deep, sonorous bel­lows de­spite her spar­row’s pipes. I can feel her laugh­ter, like I’m bound in a ta­pes­try of singing cello strings, and then I’m laugh­ing too. “Hija de gran puta!” I call her, and tears are stream­ing down her cheeks; she’s wav­ing those ham hock hands in front of her face as if to scat­ter my words. “Cál­late,” she rum­bles, “basta.” And Je­sus Christ, Lord in heaven, I love this, I love her, I love all of my soon-to-be sis­ters-for-eter­nity. “Basta ya both of you, oui?” Javi says. He’s got the nee­dles hov­er­ing over my neck like a coiled viper. “Do you want Santa Teresa Ávila or some ho­ley Padre Pio, eh?” “OK,” I say, pinch­ing the bridge of my nose. I ex­hale. “OK, let’s do this.” The nee­dles be­gin their drag again, and it’s a sweet pain, one I miss when my skin grows numb to the pierce and pull. The orig­i­nal plan is straight black, a close-up of Bernini’s Ec­stasy of Saint Teresa. I want Teresa’s face in stark lines. My skin is her skin, mar­ble white. I’m not in­ter­ested in shad­ing, be­cause faith was cut and dry for St. T of A. It de­scended on her as an an­gel from on high, car­ry­ing a long spear of gold, its iron point a fire, and as Javi’s nee­dles bite and bur­row—my own lit­tle act of fleshly mor­ti­fi­ca­tion—i can hear Teresa’s words thun­der through my chest:

He ap­peared to thrust the spear at times into my heart, to pierce my very en­trails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so sur­pass­ing was the sweet­ness of this ex­ces­sive pain, that I could not wish

to be rid of it. The soul is sat­is­fied now with noth­ing less than God. The pain is not bod­ily, but spir­i­tual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a ca­ress­ing of love so sweet which now takes place be­tween the soul and God, that I pray God of His good­ness to make him ex­pe­ri­ence it who may think that I am ly­ing.

Teresa’s eyes part, her mouth rolls open, and I would give my life for an ec­stasy like that, for a love so com­plete. I’ve gone ev­ery­where look­ing for it. It wasn’t un­til I heard the call of my fel­low Sis­ters of Atone­ment that I thought I fi­nally might have found a home, a fam­ily to live and die for. Chabs says when I first came to the con­vent, she could see the long years of my trou­bled re­la­tion­ships stretched out be­hind me, like a para­chute hauled through a bliz­zard. “You needed to be cut loose,” Chabs said, “and we had the knife.” But I don’t see it that way. What I needed were the winds to turn. I needed to be pulled for­ward, not dragged back. I want my past to be less of a lone­some bur­den, more of a re­minder, prod­ding me along. I had no mom to speak of and only met my pops once. The last thing he said be­fore he left the diner was: “If you’re go­ing to get any­where in life, you need to learn to for­get.” That line—an­cient, ab­sent-fa­ther wis­dom, de­liv­ered apro­pos of noth­ing, as if he had a right. It could have come straight from the mouth of my doc­tor when he said I’d never bear a child. “Fine by me,” I said, stop­ping him short. “I don’t need some man to make me a mother.” It’s Fa­ther Mc­givney who talks at us that way now, which is to say: like every guy I’ve ever known. Their words are for them­selves, not us. I fi­nally re­al­ize that. Once the linework is fin­ished, Javi wheels back for a look. I like the way his eyes brush over me. He sees who I am, not what. Chabby bends next to him so that their faces are side by side, and I see the egg of a smile nes­tled in the cor­ner of her mouth. “Yeah?” I say. “On point,” she says. “You’re sure I can’t of­fer a lit­tle life?” Javi purrs. “A kiss of rouge?” “That’s not what I had in mind,” I say. “Pas­sion like this de­serves a hint of naughty about the cheeks, oui?” Javi con­tin­ues. “What do you think?” I ask Chabs. “I agree.” “Amer­i­can tra­di­tional,” Javi says. “Time­less.”

“That’s all I’m look­ing for,” I say. Some­thing that’s for­ever. An hour passes be­fore Javi fin­ishes shad­ing and col­or­ing. He tow­els me off, gen­tle and sweet, and holds up a mir­ror. When I gaze at my ink I can feel my own fire de­scend­ing, my ar­dor matched only by the Teresa etched in­deli­bly onto my neck. Cheeks in flames, pupils rolled back to white, eye­lids bruised with a touch of blue mas­cara, lips the faintest blush of pink. Mod­esty in rap­ture. “Bless you,” I say. “Your come to Je­sus mo­ment,” Chabby says, and we laugh ner­vously. Some al­ter­nate mean­ings are too hard to deny. “Wel­come to the crew,” Javi says, hold­ing up a cam­era and tak­ing my mugshot. He rubs an oint­ment into my skin and ban­dages my name saint up tight. His touch re­minds me of what I’m giv­ing up, and my skin goes flush. But Javi’s the only good man in any of our lives, I have to re­mem­ber that. I pull my wim­ple over the dress­ing. “Not quite yet,” Chabby says, hand­ing him a roll of bills, bound rub­ber band tight. “But soon. Time to head out, Sis­ter MT.” It’s the first time any­one’s come close to call­ing me by my new name, the one I will as­sume once I’ve blooded in to my full place in the Sis­ters of Atone­ment. Sis­ter Mary Teresa.

We beat it out into the night, air so fresh Chabby peals out a high C to the heav­ens. She stretches her arms wide, as if she could drape the fir­ma­ment along her curves like a mink. A cop car stops and shines its spot­light on her, and Chabs is sud­denly front and cen­ter of her own stage. When the cop sees it’s just us, he kills the light, and Chabby’s roar­ing with laugh­ter again. “That good?” I ask. “Halle-fuck­ing- lu­jah,” she cries. “I live for this.” St. Teresa burns her as­sent along my neck. I can feel my pulse be­neath the ban­dage. “Shit Chabs,” I say. “You need to get tested. Your fuse is all burnt out. You’re noth­ing but gun­pow­der.” But this is the way life is meant to be lived, I think. “You ready to get yours?” Chabby asks. “I’m ready,” I say, and for once in my life, I hope I am. Our beige Master­ace mini­van—aka the Sis­ter Sledge—is parked out front of Inked Habits. Its win­dows are tinted kid­die-creeper black; you can’t see noth­ing through its shade. I slide open the side door and

smoke pours out, a few empty cans of Mil­wau­kee’s Best clat­ter onto the pave­ment. Sis­ter Hairy Melon’s been hit­ting it hard. Her real name’s Mary He­len, but one of the niños gave her the tag and it stuck. School­yard wit binds like ce­ment. Melon’s old enough to have birthed the en­tire con­vent, a buck seven and count­ing. She sits up front puff­ing away at a cigar­illo clamped be­tween her per­fect teeth, can of Beast half crushed be­tween an arthritic knot of fingers. De­spite those claws of hers, Hairy Melon’s got hand­writ­ing that’d make Martha Ste­wart want to off her­self for shame. I climb into the back seat, smooth out the con­fes­sion guides we use to cover the stains and cig­a­rette burns. Melon turns to look at me, one eye clenched, and her face does in­deed re­sem­ble a shriv­eled, hir­sute can­taloupe. Chabs opens the door and gets in, the Sis­ter Sledge set­tling be­neath her weight. “What’s good, short hairs?” she asks Hairy Melon. “Who’s she?” Melon asks, the she be­ing me. Chabby gives me a look in the rearview mir­ror like, This chick, and doesn’t bother re­ply­ing. Melon’s seen too many of us come and go to waste what few breaths she’s got left talk­ing to a novi­tiate. Not un­til I blood in, Chabby says. Old hearts break easy, and the next time will likely be the last. Melon puffs, pulls out her cigar­illo like she’s un­cork­ing a bot­tle of sherry. She’s got this mole on her tongue she can’t ever leave alone, and as she chews it, the smoke drib­bles out over her chin whiskers in a way I’ve prac­ticed but can’t per­fect. “She pussy out?” Hairy Melon asks. “MT? Not on your life.” “I wouldn’t bet noth­ing on my life,” Melon says, look­ing at me, her voice a sand­pa­per rasp. I sense a tiny nod in my di­rec­tion, though. “Small mir­a­cles.” She’s a ball­buster, Hairy Melon, a sis­ter of the cracked-ruler va­ri­ety. She ashes in the cupholder. “Well,” she says to Chabby, though she’s still look­ing at me, “what are you wait­ing for? I don’t wanna die in this shit-can jalopy.” Hairy Melon comes along every time we make con­tact with the Pre­cious Bloods. Chabby car­ried her out to the van in her arms like a bride dragged over the thresh­old, Melon with a fist­ful of cigar­il­los for a bou­quet, a six-pack of brew roosted in her lap. She can­not abide her Hover­ound, which is cur­rently grow­ing moss in the grotto, up­turned by an empty bot­tle of sacra­men­tal wine. She went ass over tit one evening and stayed out there all night in the dew. When we found her in the dawn, she lay moist and shim­mer­ing be­side Our Lady of Lour­des, but Melon was still as in­cor­rupt as Ber­nadette Soubirous her­self. “It’s not a sacri­lege if it isn’t con­se­crated,” she said of the wine.

Hairy Melon. Wacked out but nec­es­sary. Old peo­ple are cam­ou­flage. We can do what­ever the fuck we want with this crone in the car, and no one says any­thing. She can fake a heart at­tack like no­body’s busi­ness, which I know some­thing about. My old flame Cle­ment used to say I could fake any­thing, but that was an­other life. Chabby fires up the Sledge on the first start, a heav­enly por­tent, and we head out. The roads are slick in the spring night. Pink-orange street­lights shine off the pave­ment, ris­ing from the ground like a glory. We’re bathed in it, we’re breath­ing it, but we’re quiet—even Melon, who flicks the last dy­ing em­ber of her ho­muncu­lar cigar out the win­dow. She does not light up again. How often have they come this far, only for a novi­tiate to back out? How long since a new sis­ter said her vows? We teach our niños that the flip­side of faith is loy­alty, but what’s loy­alty when there’s no one to re­ceive it? What’s faith, when there’s no one to pro­fess? None of the sis­ters say that I’m the Atone­ment’s Fu­ture In­car­nate, the one flicker of youth in an aging or­der, but I feel it. Be­fore all this, my own fu­ture was noth­ing but a shank to my chest. Now it’s the sis­ters who have me hooked, and I feel my­self drawn for­ward. It tugs like a bitch, but I’m try­ing to have faith in the pull of my heart. “Hey,” Chabby says, and her eyes are two deep stoups in the rearview mir­ror. “You good?” And as with my old man, the words are more for her than me. My hands are act­ing of their own ac­cord, origami­ing the shit out of a con­fes­sion guide un­til it’s a string of beads that hums through my fingers like a prayer. Sis­ter Hairy Melon peers around once more, body on a swivel with her head. She smiles, or some­thing like it, and says, “She’s fine.” “MT?” Chabby says. “I’m fine,” I say. “I’m chill.” Though in all hon­esty, my nerves are as shot as the Sledge’s struts. Chabby parks at the cor­ner of a long road. The street dead-ends in a cul-de-sac, where the Pre­cious Blood Monastery squats among the braided cedars like a leer­ing mouth. Chabs and Melon will not come with me. When you blood in, you blood in alone. I have plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing alone, but my neck is warm—warm, as if to say, No more. Is it the heat from my brand, or is it the af­ter­glow of Javi’s fingers? I may never be touched like that again. Old de­sires are hard to tame, but now’s the time to try. “Catch you on the other side,” I say, and open the door. “Come back a sis­ter,” Melon says.

Be­fore the Bloods rolled in, we made the Host in this town. That was our beat. The ovens at the Sis­ters of Atone­ment Con­vent hummed out their love all day, great iron tongs clasped to un­leav­ened bread, solemn Chris­tograms baked into their disked faces. We were the sup­plier from St. An­dré Bes­sette’s in Mon­treal to Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Pough­keep­sie. Wafers shipped out by the thou­sands. It was our call­ing. Then the Pre­cious Bloods carved out some turf of their own in the North Coun­try. Off the bat we knew they were the real deal. We’re tech­ni­cally re­li­gious sis­ters, but they’re hard­core nuns. Com­pletely clois­tered, weekly ado­ra­tion of the Blessed Sacra­ment, OGS of pew­worn knees. . .I mean, shit, even if they never hit the streets and get their hands dirty, you can’t knock them for ded­i­ca­tion—like some drug lords holed up in their hill­side Cu­li­acán com­pound, they never leave the monastery. Which is what­ever. They deal with arts and crafts, we with the bro­ken lives of our flocks. Or as they put it: the Atone­ments tin­ker with the minds and bod­ies of this world; the Bloods are shep­herds of the eter­nal spirit. That should have told us some­thing from the start. Who wants to fuck with shep­herds of the eter­nal spirit? It was Fa­ther Mc­givney, the cowed Mick, who they strong-armed into talk­ing to the bishop. Mc­givney, who never hes­i­tated to re­mind the world that as women of the church, our place in the hi­er­ar­chy was in the base­ment with the gays and sin­gle moth­ers. But he had never dared say these words to our faces, so when Mc­givney turned up one day at the con­vent, he was in the prelate’s Jaguar, Bishop Loverde in tow like a hu­man shield. The Pre­cious Bloods were new, yes, Mc­givney said, but they’d proven their faith and loy­alty. They wanted more re­spon­si­bil­ity (read: a big­ger slice of the pie), be­yond mak­ing their con­fes­sion guides ( fin­ger paint­ings) and string­ing Mirac­u­lous Medals ( boon­dog­gles). “Given your work with the day care cen­ter,” Mc­givney said, glabrous pate shin­ing like a wet egg, “we thought, per­haps . . .” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior Mary Joan stood pa­tiently, toes pi­geoned, point­ing like ar­rows at these two un­wit­ting Se­bas­tians. I can only imag­ine that woman’s face then. I’ve seen her re­duce a child to tears with a smile. If Chabs is a bad bitch, Ma­jor Su­pe­rior is la puta ama. “Well. . .” Mc­givney said, the cow­ard. He looked side­long at Loverde, who would not prof­fer him­self, but only stood at Mc­givney’s el­bow, nod­ding, smil­ing with all those equine teeth; just look­ing at the man con­jured im­ages of him bray­ing in his sleep at night.

Ma­jor Su­pe­rior’s the only one of us with two brands. On the right side of her neck is Joan of Arc, flames curl­ing her feet like a wick. Joan’s got ar­mor and a sword that thrusts when Ma­jor Su­pe­rior clenches her jaw. To the left, a sign of her Mar­ian de­vo­tion: the danc­ing sun of Fa­tima, a great, fiery orb. To have Ma­jor Su­pe­rior ap­proach you is to watch the sun plunge to­ward the earth as if it were the end of the world. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior, the Walk­ing Judg­ment. “You want to give them the Host,” she said bluntly, no doubt step­ping to­ward Loverde and Mc­givney, who both felt the hot tide of doom set­ting on them. “Yes,” Mc­givney said, after a prod from his prelate. “Why,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior said, the word spo­ken not as a ques­tion but a pro­nounce­ment of guilt. She moved closer, Mc­givney’s breath rip­pling through her habit. Her tem­ples worked, lit­tle Joan stabbed and slashed. By now, the oth­ers had gath­ered, de­scend­ing silently like so many Ju­diths. The sis­ters are so­cial preda­tors, and they dot­ted the grotto, blink­ing into the morn­ing sun. Cur­tains parted, win­dows slid open as if elec­tri­fied. Screens popped from frames and tum­bled through the air, land­ing qui­etly in the box­woods and aza­leas be­low. Chabs ap­peared on the con­vent roof, as­pergillum in hand, thirsty for a liq­uid to spray—and there wasn’t any holy wa­ter in sight. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior leaned for­ward, her lips just shy of Mc­givney’s neck, and she seemed to sniff his very sins. “You call your­self a man?” she asked. “Please,” Mc­givney said. Loverde was frozen to the spot, eyes on the great bulk of Chabby as if she were an archangel who would de­scend upon them, bran­dish­ing her as­pergillum like a mace. He was smil­ing a crazed weak­ling’s smile. The de­ci­sion was ul­ti­mately his, but he’d made his boy Mc­givney take the rap. “I want to hear it from you,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior said to Loverde. “Is this an or­der?” Loverde, who could not stop smil­ing, peeled back his lips from his long teeth. Was it his imag­i­na­tion, or were the sis­ters draw­ing nearer? He did not see them move, but some­how, they were upon him. “Yes,” he said, and then both men were re­treat­ing, haul­ing ass to their shin­ing Jaguar, while the Sis­ter Sledge, an­cient even then, sat idle in the cor­ner of the lot. Mc­givney and Loverde dis­ap­peared down the drive, two men who held power with no con­cept of how to wield it. Un­der any other cir­cum­stance, this would have sent a riot through the sis­ters, but not to­day. Chabby was down from the roof in an in­stant, light of foot, com­mand­ing a nim­ble grace in the way only the big-boned can. She stood by the Mother Su­pe­rior’s side. Even this early in her ten­ure, Chabby was a will­ing lieu­tenant.

“What’s the or­der?” she asked. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior shook her head, rolled up her sleeves, and spat on the ground. “Fuck­ing Fran­cis­can obe­di­ence,” she said, and gazed up at her fel­low Sis­ters of Atone­ment. “We’re send­ing the bak­ing tongs over to the Bloods,” she said. Then, more qui­etly to Chabby, “Get it over with. Do it to­day.” Did it hurt? Of course. It hurt so much, I’m speak­ing as if it hap­pened to me, though this all went down be­fore Chabby took her fi­nal vows, be­fore I was even born. Now I’ll never know what it’s like to bake the Host, to have in my hands that warm, soft wafer, to hold it up and watch the light pour through its skin, know­ing what this thing I made is or­dained to be. The power of tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion is not ours. Only a priest can trans­form the wine to blood, the bread to body, but we once birthed the Host in our lit­tle ovens, this ves­sel des­tined to be­come the Son of God. The Bloods took that from us. It some­times seems strange, me aching for the Host I never got to bake, but it burns like a phan­tom limb. This is an old, fa­mil­iar yearn­ing, a sor­row I’ve felt for as long as I can re­mem­ber: to have some­thing taken that you’d al­ways thought was yours to give.

The Pre­cious Blood Monastery never sleeps. I know, be­cause we’ve scouted it for twenty long months. It’s said the Bloods live in a mys­tic world, a half-con­scious trance. By day, they move as if through a vi­sion, float­ing along their bright hall­ways, bask­ing in white light. By night, their sleep is in­ter­rupted by pray­ers and ado­ra­tion and Hours of Repa­ra­tion. Some say they ex­ist in a fugue state, one foot in this world, one in the next, minds di­vorced from bod­ies in search of the Paschal Mys­tery—like junkies prowl­ing for a fix. I’ve heard re­ports of strange voices echo­ing within their clois­tered walls, prophetic vi­sions sough­ing on tongues of fire, words spo­ken not in the speech of the hu­man plane. But I know the truth: sleep de­pri­va­tion will take a toll on the best of us, and these bitches are cracked out. I know only five Bloods live there now, so if we are a dy­ing breed, they are all but ex­tinct. When they took our tongs, they bit off more than they could chew. I know that of those five Bloods, three were shipped straight from the Philip­pines to keep the or­der in­tact, in­clud­ing Su­pe­rior Mary Cruz her­self. It’s not tongues, but a strangely-mu­si­cal Chava­cano-taga­log mix­ture that war­bles through the monastery.

And I know that any­one who fucks with my sis­ters is in need of Atone­ment. But as I creep along their foot­path, I re­al­ize from the get-go there’ll be trou­ble. The scent of cedar is not from the trees that line the walk like crosses to Cal­vary—it’s thicker than that, thuri­ble thick, a blan­ket of in­cense to warm the night and coat my tongue. Un­sched­uled ado­ra­tion. Dur­ing Eucharis­tic ado­ra­tion, the con­se­crated Host is dis­played in a mon­strance on the chapel al­tar, and it can­not be left alone. There’s al­ways a look­out. That means the Bloods will be tak­ing shifts of prayer, awake all night in its pres­ence. Did some­one tip them off? I won­der. Now would be the time to turn back. I could al­ways try an­other night. The air is cool but com­fort­able. A full moon inks its blue-sil­ver light across the lawn, reaches through the trees and down along the con­crete walls of Pre­cious Blood. A soft breeze turns the leaves belly-up in the night. I’m alone here, and no mat­ter what the other sis­ters will say, if I back out be­fore blood­ing in, I’ll be alone at the con­vent tonight as well. I’m stand­ing at the monastery en­trance. The vestibule is al­ways un­locked, open to any­one in need of a mid­night prayer. I could put this off, but twenty months is long enough. Fuck that noise, I think, and push through the door. In­side it’s silent, or rather, the only sound is the same that fills my ears dur­ing prayer, a blood whis­per. The emer­gency lights are on, red EX­ITS and dim over­heads. A ten­dril of in­cense reaches through the cracked door of the chapel. Shin­ing on the al­tar is the mon­strance. It’s a sun­burst el­e­vated on a base, a self-haloed won­der. The liv­ing Host is tucked safely in its womb. There’s a Blood in there some­where, on her knees. I lis­ten for move­ment. Noth­ing. I gather my­self and re­mem­ber what I’m here to do. It’s not the tongs I’m go­ing to take. As bull­shit as it seems, we’re bound by an oath of obe­di­ence to the Church; we’ve sworn def­er­ence to the chain of com­mand. Bak­ing the Host is the Blood’s call­ing now, and there’s noth­ing to be done for that. I’m here for their sup­ply. I know the un­con­se­crated Host is boxed up in a cool, dry room in the east wing. It’s ready to be shipped out around our old turf. If we can’t bake the Host any­more, we can take what should have been the work of our ovens. It’s a small thing. Petty, per­haps. But it’s a mat­ter of loy­alty. This is what it takes to blood in to the Sis­ters of Atone­ment now. I creep by the chapel door and freeze. Su­pe­rior Mary Cruz sits in the front pew, fac­ing me. Tears of blood stream down her an­cient face, which is nearly black in the dim light. The Bloods get one droplet

inked for every year in the or­der, and her face is cov­ered, like Je­sus in Geth­se­mane. Her red scapu­lar pours around her body. I’m made, I think. It’s over. But then I hear a soft, lonely sound. Her breath comes and goes in even waves, and that’s when I no­tice that her knees are pulled up to her chin, she’s us­ing her scapu­lar for a blan­ket—sis­ter Mary Cruz isn’t even fac­ing the mon­strance. She’s asleep. This is a ma­jor fuckup. When the Blessed Sacra­ment is ex­posed, you’ve got to be there, and she’s long gone. The Pre­cious Bloods: once so diehard, but not any­more. Where is my ela­tion? Where is the joy? As I watch Su­pe­rior Mary Cruz in her silent, se­cret sleep, I feel her youth creep­ing in, wrap­ping it­self around her like that blood-red scapu­lar. She’s a child again, and I see my­self be­side her in the chapel, knees drawn in, body tucked into a dark­ened cor­ner, alone. It’s a mo­ment of peace from the too-rough world, from the coarse hands that dic­tate ev­ery­thing in our lives and know only how to take. And I re­al­ize what the other sis­ters would also see if they were here: Su­pe­rior Mary Cruz is not the en­emy. The Bloods aren’t the prob­lem, and nei­ther are we. None of us rule or com­mand. It’s the men of this world who tell us what to do and how. Men who con­fuse power for knowl­edge, au­thor­ity for jus­tice. Men who tear us apart. It’s a bitch, but while we’re bound to act obe­di­ently, we don’t have to fol­low orders in our hearts. There’s only One of them who can judge us, and our Man isn’t into cast­ing stones. I won’t take your sup­ply of Host, I think, watch­ing the rise and fall of Su­pe­rior Mary Cruz’s chest. The hard work of your hands and ovens, the source of sleep­less nights and end­less wor­ries—i’ll leave that alone. But my neck is burn­ing, my ban­dage is red hot, and I know that even if Su­pe­rior Mary Cruz is no longer my en­emy, she’s se­ri­ously dropped the ball. Be­sides, for­giv­ing is one thing, for­get­ting is an­other—even ab­so­lu­tion re­quires atone­ment—and I need some­thing to show for this night. I smile. There’s more than one way to prove my de­vo­tion. I creep into the chapel, feet cat-quiet on the car­peted floor. Fa­ther Mc­givney set up this per­pet­ual ado­ra­tion, no doubt, and the old med­dler hasn’t left his humeral veil. I can’t touch the mon­strance with my bare hands, so I pull my habit off—my own kind of veil—and wrap the shin­ing shaft in its folds. I turn, and Su­pe­rior Mary Cruz is still snor­ing. Sleep tight, I think, filled with a sud­den soro­ral af­fec­tion. In a way, I’m help­ing. This Host of ours will not be left alone. Back out­side, I’m run­ning to the Sis­ter Sledge, and it doesn’t even oc­cur to me how this change in plans might be per­ceived. I slide the

door open with one hand, climb in, and Chabs and Melon are star­ing back at me, faces lit by my golden loot. Does the mon­strance catch the moon­light, or is it shin­ing of its own ac­cord? “What the fuck, MT,” Chabby says. “Drive,” Melon snarls.

We’re with Ma­jor Su­pe­rior Mary Joan in her of­fice, Chabs, Hairy Melon, and me. Melon begs off to sleep, and when Chabby hoists her in her arms, Melon looks at me with those deep, tired eyes, and says, “Don’t wake me in the morn­ing if she’s gone.” She dis­ap­pears through the dark thresh­old, small, smaller still, a child, not a bride. Old hearts break easy, I think, and the next time. . . “Ma­jor Su­pe­rior,” I be­gin. “Don’t,” she says. So we wait, not an­other word spilled be­tween us, the mon­strance gleam­ing bright as ever on her old, dun desk. The room has the bar­ren or­der­li­ness of parochial school—clean de­spite the de­cay. It smells of hand-sharp­ened pen­cils and chalk dust, which is for­ever ce­mented into the cracks of Ma­jor Su­pe­rior’s hands. She’s in a robe and Tims, and as she looks at the Blessed Sacra­ment, she peels off her habit like a girl watch­ing a fly ball sail over­head, up and out of reach. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior drags the habit across her fore­head, along her neck, and I see just how dull her brands have be­come. Even the Walk­ing Judg­ment is old. I fid­get with my pa­per beads from the car. They’re the only ones I’ll get tonight. Chabs re­turns and takes the seat be­tween us, legs spread wider than a man on a sub­way. She plops her hands on her knees, thumbs point­ing in, and the three of us stare at my lu­mi­nous plun­der on Ma­jor Su­pe­rior’s desk. “Fuck­ing A,” Chabby yo­dels. “Don’t I know it,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior says, and looks at me. “This isn’t what was asked of you, Mary Teresa. Did obe­di­ence once en­ter your mind? The Blessed Sacra­ment is in that mon­strance, the Body of Christ, not some box of un­leav­ened bread. When Mc­givney finds out, he’ll be cry­ing sacri­lege to the bishop like that.” She snaps her fingers, and a cloud of chalk pow­der bursts from them. “And then your fate will be up to those men. Out of our hands en­tirely.” “I’ll turn over my wim­ple,” I say. “I’ll clear my room—” “Slow your roll,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior says. “I haven’t given an or­der yet. I need to think. Morn­ing. Then we’ll talk.” I nod. The minia­ture St. Cha­banel on Chabby’s neck seems to be pray­ing for my life.

“I’ll leave the mon­strance here,” I say. “No,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior says, swift as perdi­tion. “If shit goes down—” “Right,” I say. “Pro­tect the Sis­ter­hood. Take the rap.” Say­ing the words is to set me apart from the oth­ers. I rise and lift the mon­strance, still swad­dled in my veil. “You can’t sleep,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior says. “Not with It in your room.” “Heard,” I say, and head into the dim hall­way. “I told you it was too soon,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior hisses at Chabby. When I look back, they’re watch­ing me, these Sis­ters of Atone­ment. Their brands, faded as they may be, still say ev­ery­thing about who they are. I’m inked too, marked per­ma­nently by my de­sire, but my brand is ban­daged, cov­ered, shrouded be­neath a pall. Maybe Ma­jor Su­pe­rior’s right, I think. Maybe I’m not ready to trade pas­sion for de­vo­tion. I go back to my room and set­tle in for a long, sleep­less night.

But I do sleep, and in my sleep, she comes. Skin as white as mar­ble, eyes that see within, a mouth to moan at every thrust. I can feel it too, the blaze where we are pierced. My hands sing along my body and come away wet and red. Her eyes part, and she sees me. The light on her face is blind­ing. She holds out her hand as the spear stabs and draws Blood. We come to­gether as our fingers lace like su­tures. The pain is great, but we sis­ters will share it, it is a bur­den to bear to­gether, an agony so sweet that it passes through our flesh, through our hearts, buries it­self deep, deep, in the se­cret places we have sworn from love.

When I wake, a burn­ing spreads through my body, pours from my mouth as a moan. I have the blaz­ing mon­strance shaft in my bare hands. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior may be un­cer­tain of my de­vo­tion, but I’m hav­ing none of that. The Sis­ter­hood is call­ing to me. I know where I be­long. There’s no ques­tion of my be­lief, no doubt of my de­sire—what I be­lieve and what I want are one and the same. Faith and body have aligned, a once-in-many-life­times mo­ment. My fingers ride up the naked mon­strance, and even this idle wan­der­ing is a pro­fes­sion that sings in flames. I can­not con­tain this feel­ing. I can­not be con­tained. What was once ev­ery­thing to me, I now know is noth­ing, but I’ve found a love com­plete to fill the void. Am I mak­ing sense? Can it even be said? There are no words to speak, only Blood to be drawn, and I hear It rush­ing through me, I feel the lap­ping of Its salu­tary waves.

My door opens, and the sis­ters stand out­side. It’s the dead of night, but our mon­strance shines like a ris­ing sun. Its rays are spears that pierce us all. Mother Su­pe­rior Mary Joan’s face is awash in light, and I can tell those men Mc­givney and Loverde are the last things on her mind. She calls me for­ward with two beck­on­ing fingers. We file into the din­ing room, a fam­ily’s pro­ces­sion, and I set the mon­strance on the ta­ble, our own al­tar. “Mary Teresa,” Sis­ter Cha­banel says. I turn to look. Sis­ter Mary He­len is in her arms, their two sets of eyes on mine. “You’re bleed­ing,” Sis­ter Mary He­len says. I cup my ban­dage, and my hand comes away wet. But when I peel off the gauze and look at my re­flec­tion in the mon­strance, there is noth­ing but Santa Teresa Ávila in ec­stasy on my neck. She is im­mac­u­late, and bright, and rap­tur­ous. “Sis­ter Mary Teresa,” Ma­jor Su­pe­rior says, cor­rect­ing Sis­ter Cha­banel. She is not unkind. She tosses me a bun­dle, a coiled string that curls through the air and un­winds as it lands with a wooden rap on the ta­ble be­fore me: my rosary beads. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior looks at each of us, my fel­low Sis­ters of Atone­ment and me, and she is coy and wom­anly. She reaches for the mon­strance, un­clasps the latch that lets its sun­beams part, and al­lows the Host to tum­ble softly into her hand. She holds up that bread, and there ain’t a man alive who will dare tell me I can’t make it my own flesh and blood. Who needs a fa­ther, when you have such a crew of moth­ers? And we all bad moth­ers. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior laughs. We join her. The mu­sic, the glory and mu­sic that fills our halls. We’re ri­otous. We’re cry­ing. We’re in love. Ma­jor Su­pe­rior passes the bread to me. I hold it up, this Blessed Sacra­ment, and it’s ours now, con­se­crated anew. I break the Host in two. A drop of red stains our cor­po­ral, and I can’t tell if it’s St. Teresa or the very body in my hands that weeps this Blood. I break the Host again and again, smaller and smaller, un­til there’s enough to go around.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.