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 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 thinning padding, too hungry to rest well, too tired to rise. (Sister Assunta would understand. She looked so proud when I said 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 dream...
(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 this dream.
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 with taste.
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.