IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
The Sacred and the Profane
Sunday, May 24, 2708, continued
We have no priest--not even
mad Father Man--but we have a chapel, gleaming clean and sweet with
incense. We have no wine, but for now we
have the last bit of stapleseed biscuit that will serve for bread. Fatima and I read the scriptures for the
Saturday Vigil Mass, and Damien sings hymns like an angel with the little harp
that Father Man gave him, on that night of fire when we fled. And Mother Superior says the holy words, as
though a priest were here.
"On the night He was
betrayed, He took bread and said, 'Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which shall be given up for
you.’" Officially we share agápé
here--the love feast, not true communion.
"Then He took the cup, and gave thanks and praise, saying, 'Take
this, all of you and drink of it--this is my blood, the blood of the new and
everlasting covenant. It shall be shed
for you and for all humanity, so that sins may be forgiven.'"
We have only greasy crumbs
of biscuit and a cup of water, prayed over by an old woman, but in our hearts
we eat His body, we drink His blood, we feel his betrayal, we want our sins
forgiven. Life has always been a
struggle, we remember, in our aching, restless bones--but once a light shone
through a body every bit as weary as our own, once a pure and piercing
sweetness spilled in human blood.
* * *
Now we lie in our blanket/hammock/sleeping
bags in two cells, one for boys and one for girls. Funny, how suddenly having a wall between
them and us breeds unsettling thoughts, that maybe we shouldn't have been
sleeping within easy reach of each other all along, and yet maybe we want that
very much right now--but no more of that!
Get to sleep, Deirdre!
(Stay awake, stand guard.
Outsiders have tried to slip into the convent in the dead of night, and
I have my orders. Even if I want nothing
better than to go back to my tent, bury my head in my pillow, and dream of
anything but here.)
Not so readily attained
tonight, sleep. We toss and turn on the
hard tile floor, pressed against the thin padding of Petro's weaves, too hungry to rest well,
too tired to rise. (Sister Assunta would understand.
She looked so proud when I said that I wanted to enlist. So I stand up straight, my gun upon my
shoulder.) Yet gradually the
holiness around us soothes us down, the scent of polished wood and candlewax,
and that faint whiff of incense in the air.
Our restlessness burns itself out, we sink into the bedrolls, and we
(It's better this way, I
keep telling myself.) We dream of impossible
fare in a vast and heady feast--sausages swimming in gravy, ice cream pie. (I think of stout, sweet Sister Assunta as
she taught us to read in ol' Meritorious Elementary--but I must remind myself
that nuns in her day surely would never, ever have given aid and comfort to
brigands and murderers.) We dream of
chaummin pudding, tobacco turnovers--foods that awake would choke me all look
good. (No, it is surely better this
way. If we keep the innocent strictly
quarantined from subversive elements, their hearts will stay true. To the very end. Oh my God!) Oh, the stuffed things and the candied
things, the things in sauces and the things in crusts! All of them in luscious, melting colors, some
dewed in juices, polished in their grease, or sparkling with crystals of salt
or sugar! (Keep them as true as Sister Assunta, who taught good citizenship,
and obedience to authority.) We
dream of stones that turn into candy through and through, branches we bite that
turn into spiced meat--a whole landscape of delectables surrounding a banquet
more splendid than any of these.
(They say that fasting does
good for those who practice it, that it purifies the soul.) Now the dreams take on a disturbing,
adolescent twist--fruit-salad loincloths and grape-cluster bras, all of which
cling miraculously until nibbled off. (The
nuns will grow ever more attenuated in the flesh and correspondingly more
spiritual in their nature--isn't that what they want, what they strive for?) Then comes the orgy all over the
banquet-table, slipping in the gravy, wallowing in the pies. (I'm sure that deep in their hearts, in
their most secret souls, they thank us for what we do) No, I definitely do not want to
remember this dream! (Austerity will
keep them focused on their prayers and off of politics.) I will not remember Kief crowned in
vegetables like some Pagan god, rolling with two rebel vixens through the sauce
and pasta, a chicken-leg in his teeth, a bit of herb stuck to his nether
cheek. (It's for their own good, poor
things!) I will not remember
Monday, May 25, 2708
Though we get scant
breakfast, the sisters fill our packs with gold and silver candlesticks for
trade, and deck us out in fresh clothing, hastily snipped from sheets and
banners, altarcloths and the vestments for priests who cannot come, which
they’d sewn for us all night long. Red,
green, indigo, purple, gold, rose, black and white. The muted colors of the scarves from
Tumblebugs don’t quite match, but they do serve to tone it down a bit. And it’s not like we hope to pass for anyone
They also present us each
with a prayer-cloth. I study mine--a
little square of cheir silk, translucently printed with a picture of St. Luke
the Physician. It's a handkerchief,
really--you wipe the cares from your brow with the image of a saint.
But more than that,
too--blessings saturate each thread.
Some say that all the nuns who make such things have secret wells or
springs of natural holy water into which they dip them, and then leave them on
some nearby hedge to dry, soaking up holiness with the sunlight. Others say no, factories churn them out and
then priests absentmindedly sprinkle them in passing--some get the lucky drops
and some don't, you can never be sure.
But nobody knows anybody who has actually worked in such a factory.
Kief gets St. Michael the Archangel. They choose St. Cecilia, God's minstrel, for Damien and, for Kanarik, St. Rose who dances forever in heaven. Imad gets St. James, the hot-tempered Son of Thunder, while they give his brother, St. John the Beloved Apostle, to Teofilo. St. John Bosco of Lost Boys goes to Gaziley. Aichi takes her cloth of St. Nicholas and runs with delight around and around in a circle, holding it high, feeling it flutter like it gives her soul wings, till hunger makes her drop abruptly; then she sits on the floor and holds the prayer-cloth against her cheek. Yan gets St. Francis, presumably for his love of animals, while Yaimis receives St. Thomas Aquinas, wordless through the last year of his life. I watch Kiril kiss her cloth icon of Mary, Star of the Sea, then slip it into her shirt where I catch a flash of something red. Lufti wraps his pebble collection in St. Peter, the Rock of the Church. Chulan gets St. Mary Magdalene to comfort her, but for Fatima they reserve their patroness, St. Teresa of Avila, pierced with ecstasy.
I feel my own prayer cloth,
soft upon my fingers, a heavenly touch whatever its origins. You could cry into something like this and
not feel shame.