Shriek (in secunda parte)
Sister Bettina rapped the cedar door with soft cork handle of her cane. “Awaken . . . Sister, get up!”
The plump young novitiate awakened in a start. Exhausted from the fitful labor of elusive slumber, she fumbled for her leather clogs in the pre-dawn chill. One terror alone was worse than the ones visited upon her during her brief slumber — that punishment Mother Superior would fashion (specifically to suit her) should Dolores arrive once again late for lauds.
Oh dear, oh dear!
The faint peal of the abbey bell rang out, somewhat muted by distance and deluge. At the great clap of thunder that followed, Dolores launched upright onto her feet. She drew in a deep, not-quite-calming breath, fixed her humble garments, and bustled down the corridor into the pitch black of the hour. She would have to do without the benefit of candlelight shared by her more timely sisters.
Why, oh why I can’t I settle into the routine in this place? Always late, I seem to be. Oh, oh.
Her older brother had thought membership in the religious order would be just the thing to calm her jangled nerves and bring a bit of stability to her life. Nothing was ever quite the same after the horrific death of her late husband. “The cloister,” he suggested, “might bestow upon you a bit of confidence and serenity .” Unknown dread, instead, marched right by her side, up to and through through the gates of the Cloistered Sisters of The Holy Child.
Hunger roiled in her belly as she shuffled along the flagstones. She lightly tapped the stucco along the way, reassuring herself of their permanence. In clear weather, the moon and stars usually provided a bit of solace too, lighting her path just a bit. Nonesuch comfort in this weather. Here and there she felt a bit of rainwater tracing down the walls and seeping into the place. At least she thought it must be water. Surely so.
Out into the open of garden she picked up speed, racing past the milking stalls. A dozen little goats bleated softly, their udders swollen with the day’s milk. Milking, churning, and cheese-making would shortly follow the morning prayers.
Sister Dolores imagined herself again mucking out the stalls where the donkeys slept. This was Mother Superior’s placeholder punishment. “Muck now whilst I contemplate a more suitable penance, child.” And muck she would. If only such labors would relieve her ever-present sense of foreboding, she’d happily do so all the day long.
Dolores sank one foot deep into a puddle. It filled her shoe with the liquid cold of late-October. “Oh!” she exclaimed.
“Oooh, oooooh!” a mourning dove echoed in return.
Clutching the wooden cross to her chest, her fleshy figure raced towards the chapel. Its ancient walls, covered thick in ivy and moss, were but a dark outline against the even darker forest clearing. Sweat and rain dripping from her brow, she slipped past Sister Constance who tugged at the iron ring in the chapel door. With a quick crossing and genuflect, she slid into her stall. Thus she began the earnest work of avoiding Mother Superior’s glower.
“O God, come to our aid,” the anemic priest, began. Sister Dolores wondered if his entreaty (he with one foot gingerly at the grave’s edge) mightn’t sound just a bit too personal.
“O Lord, make haste to help us,” she responded, her words automatic— as reflexive as if she were withdrawing her hand from a flame.
The venerable cleric continued, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Alleluia.”
She adored the kindly man, as much like her own grandfather as anyone she’d ever met. His presence was one of the few reassuring features of their community. So old was he, though, she wondered silently to herself:
Was Father Anselm present at THE beginning?! Surely he looks as if his own end is near. Oh I shall miss him so!
Outside, the autumn wind increased, whipping the branches about the clearing and driving the rain hard upon the chapel’s leaden roof.
Inside, the service continued as it had every day since her arrival. The sisters lifted their voices together in song;
“ . . . Like sparks among the straw, you ran to set the universe ablaze . . .”
Oh why must we sing of such things? Fire. Like the fire that took my dear, sweet Simeon. Such Devastation!
She felt a prickly heat upon her skin.
Next, as always, came the Psalm. Together they responded, “ . . . my soul will be filled as if by rich food . . .”
She felt the grumbling in her belly.
How long has it been since supper? What if the old calico mouser dies leaving our stores to the mice? Surely we will starve!
With the prickly heat and hunger pangs well upon her, she turned her ears to the day’s canticle, the text from the third chapter of Daniel. The priest’s thin voice misted over the gathering:
“ . . . Bless the Lord, sun and moon;
all stars of the sky, bless the Lord.”
Would that we had some moon and stars these short, cold days. I might easily trip and break a limb!
“ . . . Bless the Lord, rain and dew;
all you winds, bless the Lord.
Bless the Lord, fire and heat;
cold and warmth, bless the Lord.
Bless the Lord, dew and frost;
ice and cold, bless the Lord.
Bless the Lord, ice and snow. . . ”
She squirmed in the stall, the wool of her habit consistently uncomfortable and itching as if designed to do so. All the while, her vivid imagination took flight.
Oh, oh! Fire again, but with winds! And now . . . now they blow cold with ice! Oh, Woe is me!
“. . . Bless the Lord, light and darkness;
lightning and storm-clouds, bless the Lord . . .”
The young sister pictured a demon in her mind — one given lordship and dominion over darkness and lightning. One sent to torment her in particular.
“What? Who’s that?” Sotto voce, she cried out. (Only Sister Bettina took notice of what had become an all-too-predictable event.)
Surely she also hears this screeching and beating of leathery wings.
The others, however, seemed caught unawares.
“ . . . Bless the Lord, whales and fish,
birds of the air, bless the Lord . . . ”
The un-feathered flapping grew in a constant crescendo with the whistling of the winds outside the chapel. Frantically, her eyes darted to and fro. Dolores rose from her place to search for the source of terror.
“. . . Bless the Lord, wild beasts and tame;
sons of men, bless the Lord . . .”
At that very moment, the heavy chapel door gave way to the wind, crashing open. A shrill and preternatural shriek rang out, it’s echoes startling the entire gathering:
“Oh, Bless the Lord!” Sister Dolores cried. Her eyes rolled back, leaving only the tear-filled whites showing. Unconscious, she sank. Sister Bettina arrived just in time to cup the young nun’s head in her hands, easing her limp frame to the ground.
Later that day, the sisters laughed at the memory of the hungry billy goat. Friar William, they decided to call him — the one with the audacity to join them in praise and worship. Mother Superior, with a mighty guffaw unusual in a woman of her station, laughed loudest of all.
Alone among them,
was not amused.
Happy Halloween! This little story was written by request, in response to another by Jef Littlejohn: