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Authors: Eileen Goudge

Taste of Honey

BOOK: Taste of Honey
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Taste of Honey

A Carson Springs Novel (Book Two)

Eileen Goudge

For my godsons, Jason and Ethan Lazar, who serve as constant reminders that family comes in all shapes and forms.

My child, eat honey, for it is good

and the drippings of the

honeycomb are sweet to

your taste.

Know that wisdom is such to

your soul;

if you find it, you will find a future,

and your hope will not be cut off.

—Proverbs 24:13–14


Our Lady of the Wayside
, 1973

the altar in her dark gray habit and white veil, fixed her gaze on the squares of cloth spread over the scuffed floorboards at her feet. They seemed to float almost, like magic carpets: the white one a symbol of the material world she was renouncing, the black one of her journey through darkness to Christ. Within minutes she would be a professed nun, the years of rigorous tutelage and constant questioning behind her. Yet as she stood there alongside her fellow novices, she all at once felt deeply afraid. Her heart began to pound and each breath brought the sodden weight of the August heat that lay over the chapel like a freshly boiled jar—Mother Jerome steadfastly refused to install air-conditioning—pressing down on her lungs.

She brought a trembling hand to her veil, which she would soon trade for the black one of the professed nun, her mind spinning back to her very first interview with Mother Jerome.
This will be a test, my dear,
the kindly old mother superior had warned,
not of your strength or courage

you have more than enough of those to spare
—here, she’d smiled—
but of the quality of your faith, which is the most difficult test of all.

She’d been just shy of her eighteenth birthday. The next nine months as a postulant had been filled with constant reminders: to walk without bouncing on the balls of her feet; to hold her hands clasped to prevent them, in Sister Eunice’s words, from flapping about like two birds; and, most difficult of all, to keep custody of her eyes. She’d learned to bite her tongue and to rein in her ready laugh. Two more years as a novice had taught her the patience of Job. She’d learned to let answers come naturally rather than constantly seeking them out, and to give without asking or expecting anything in return.

And hadn’t she humbled herself before Him, praying until her knees were a constant ache? Risen before sunrise seven days a week for morning office? Toiled without complaint scrubbing floors and toilets, pulling weeds, working in the apiary at the risk of getting stung? She’d even borne in silence (except for occasional mutterings under her breath) the criticisms of sharp-tongued assistant superior Sister Eunice. All that remained now was to take her final vows. Why then was her heart pounding so? What was this taste like old pennies on the back of her tongue?

She watched Ann Marie Lozano, on her right, lower herself onto the black cloth, facedown, arms stretched out on either side of her. Dark-haired, birdlike Ann Marie, newly renamed Sister Paul, who’d been desperately homesick that first year and often whimpered in her sleep even now. As she lay motionless a white sheet was placed over her: a shroud symbolizing death to the material world. Listening to her recite her vows, Gerry heard only a series of muffled cheeps that seemed to mimic those of the swallows nesting in the terra-cotta roof overhead. Gerry cast a glance over her shoulder at Ann Marie’s family nearly filling the second pew, her mother and father and six brothers and sisters, all small and dark like her, with eyes that seemed to take up half their faces. They were beaming as Father Gallagher and Mother Jerome said their blessings over Ann Marie.

After Ann Marie, Peggy Rourke’s trim, taut form was a living crucible stretched out on the cloth. Peggy’s calling was the envy of every thirteen-year-old girl: The Blessed Virgin Mary had actually appeared before her, clad in a shimmering blue robe and bearing a bouquet of white roses. That this vision had occurred in the days following Peggy’s mother’s death made it all the more awe inspiring. Wherever she went Peggy seemed to carry with her a faint but somehow pervasive scent of roses. Though it hadn’t escaped Gerry’s notice that in her humble insistence on always being the last in line, taking the smallest portion, and assuming the hardest task, Peggy succeeded only in drawing more attention to herself.

Under the white cloth that covered her from head to toe, Gerry could see her trembling. She felt oddly reassured. If Peggy Rourke, their resident Bernadette, had butterflies, then who was she to question her own faith?

It’s not just nerves, and you know it,
another more sinister voice whispered in her head. A voice that spoke the truth, for her belly seemed hotly alive, not with butterflies, but with a buzzing swarm of bees.

Gerry raised her eyes to the carved reredos over the tabernacle, at the center of which, crudely applied to wood with mineral colors and cactus juice by some long-forgotten artisan, was a painting of Jesus on the cross, heart displayed like a medallion on His chest. When she was little, she’d misread
sacred heart
scared heart
until Sister Alice set her straight in front of the whole class her first year of catechism, to the tittering delight of her classmates. Yet it seemed appropriate somehow. How could Jesus
have been scared? He’d been a man after all, a man with doubts and fears. A man who might even have given in to the occasional temptation …

Gerry grew light-headed, swaying on legs gone watery as the thing she’d pushed to the back of her mind came bursting forth.
You’re a liar and a hypocrite,
scolded the waspish voice in her head.
And you have the gall to stand here, pretending to be worthy of the vows you’re about to take.

It wasn’t as if her mother and sisters hadn’t tried to warn her. Mavis, who’d remained dry-eyed throughout Gerry’s father’s funeral five years before, had wept when her youngest daughter announced she was going into the convent. Even Sam, her best friend, Sam, who rarely raised her voice, had shouted that she’d be a racehorse shackled to a plow. As usual, Gerry hadn’t listened, even when her own inner voice chimed in. Such doubts were normal, she knew. And how could she ignore this

But something had happened along the way: She’d sinned. Not like the sins whispered in the confessional—doubts and small lapses, a word spoken out of turn—but one so deep and dark she’d told no one. Not even dear, good-hearted Sister Agnes. For the novice mistress would have been duty bound to bring it to the attention of Mother Jerome, who’d have immediately summoned Gerry to her office.

That’s not all,
she’d have been forced to tell them.
There’s more.

But a missed period didn’t necessarily mean anything, did it? It wasn’t the first time she’d skipped a month, and was probably the result of not eating enough to keep a bird alive, as her mother would’ve said. Hadn’t Sister Agnes warned that fasting could interrupt the cycle and even bring on nausea?

But what if it was something else? Something she didn’t dare voice, not even to herself. Gerry felt it start to take shape, the murky brown fear in the back of her mind, and was swept with a chill that blew through her like a Norse wind. She rocked back on her heels, taking slow, even breaths until the buzzing lightness in her head receded and she could trust her legs to remain steady. Close to her heart, where she’d once felt the warmth of God’s love, there was only emptiness. How could He love her in the face of what she’d done?

Even with her head lowered, she became acutely aware of Father Gallagher’s eyes on her. But when she at last dared meet his gaze, it passed through her as if she were invisible. An icy bolt shot through Gerry’s heart. What was going on behind those eyes? Eyes malice free and blue as the sunlit Sea of Galilee depicted in the stained-glass window over the tabernacle. There was a time she’d believed Father Gallagher—Jim—to be as close to God as was possible in a mortal being. But now she knew that he walked the earth like any man: on feet of clay.

If he led, I willingly followed.

She couldn’t blame Jim. It was her own weakness that had caused her to stumble from the path. And now here she was, putting one foot in front of the other simply because it was the only thing she could think of to do.

Gerry glanced at her novice mistress out of the corner of her eye. Sister Agnes was seated in the first pew to her right, flanked by Mother was Jerome and horsefaced Sister Eunice, a plump little muffin of a woman whom she’d grown to love like a mother, and who had instructed her in everything from the chanting of the Divine Office to mulching flower beds and making Mulligan stew. Now she caught Gerry’s eye and smiled in encouragement, her round cheeks glowing and deep-set blue eyes sparkling with a warmth that penetrated even the coldness at Gerry’s center.

I should have confided in her.
Sister Agnes never judged, only gently corrected. She saw God in everything, even the humblest of His creations: the bees delivering pollen to the hives, a perfect piece of fruit, the homeliest wildflowers, equal in her eye to the lilies of the field.
She’d have understood.
Like a lighted window, she’d have guided Gerry through the darkness.

But no one could help her now. These past weeks had been a sort of half sleep in which she’d floated dreamily, a sleep from which she’d only just been awakened as if by a rude slap. Now the moment of reckoning was near. Once she took her final vows there could be no turning back, no second thoughts. It wasn’t just that she’d be living a lie, there would be no more—
God forgive me
—of the hot, furtive pleasure she’d found in Jim’s bed. Never again would she feel that delicious heat between her legs, building and building until she was consumed by it.

Gerry watched with growing panic as the sheet over Peggy was removed and she rose gracefully to her feet, swaying slightly, her face a pale pink cameo framed by her starched white wimple and veil. Peggy, who’d sooner offer her throat to be cut than open her legs to a man. As Father Gallagher stepped toward Peggy, Gerry allowed herself a glimpse, just one, like a stolen sip of wine: a fleeting impression of dark hair dipping in a comma over a smooth white brow, a small straight nose, a sharply defined upper lip curled in a bow over the fuller bottom lip. His white and gold vestments shimmered jewel-like in the light streaming through the stained-glass window as he directed his beneficent gaze on Peggy before turning to face Mother Jerome.

“Reverend Mother,” he said in a solemn tone, “do you accept Sister Bernadette,” a nod toward Peggy, “as a member of your congregation for the rest of her religious life?”

Mother Jerome, as ancient as the breviary she clutched in one hand, its pages worn to a whisper, once more struggled to her feet. A small woman hunched with arthritis, she nonetheless carried herself with a grace earned from years as a Living Rule. In a cracked voice that somehow carried up into the rafters, she responded, “We do, Father, and with God’s grace she will remain faithful to her vows all the days of her life. May her soul be one with Christ, united with Him for all eternity.”

Father Gallagher returned his solemn gaze to Peggy. Was it only six years ago he’d been assigned to their parish, fresh from the seminary? His demeanor was that of someone far older and wiser, as if he occupied a higher plane than those around him. How did he stand there looking as if nothing were out of the ordinary? As if the things they’d done together in the darkness of his bedroom were but a fever dream. Remembering, she felt blood surge up into her face, making it throb.

“Do you, Sister Bernadette, promise obedience, chastity, and poverty to God for the rest of your days?” he went on.

Jim, he said to call him Jim.
As if the name she whispered in the close-smelling darkness were a separate entity from the priest known to the outside world as Father Gallagher, a man who ceased to exist outside the narrow confines of his bed and therefore carried no responsibility for what happened there. There were times she herself wondered if she hadn’t imagined the whole thing. Only her guilt, nibbling at her with sharp rodent’s teeth, told her it was real, guilt she alone was left to bear.

The newly anointed Sister Bernadette, formerly known as Peggy Rourke, raised her blameless blue eyes to his. “I do,” she said in a voice husky with emotion.

Mother Jerome hobbled over, listing to one side, to remove Peggy’s veil, allowing a fleeting glimpse of short wispy locks the pale orange of marmalade—hair that from now on was to be cut eight times a year, only on holy days—before fitting the black veil of profession over her head. When the mother superior presented her with a plain silver cross on a sturdy black cord, Peggy placed it around her neck as if it were the finest of jewels. Gerry caught the rapturous glow on her face as she floated back to her pew, where she knelt and bowed her head in prayer.

Now it was Gerry’s turn.

She could feel every eye in the chapel on her. Mother Jerome and all the sisters. Ann Marie, Peggy, and their families. She glanced over her shoulder at her mother, sitting ramrod straight in her pew several rows back, her thick hair that had once shone as bright as new pennies springing from its combs like a tangle of rusty wires. Mavis, who’d cried that she hadn’t buried a husband only to lose a daughter, but who’d eventually come to accept her decision. Beside her sat Gerry’s fourteen-year-old brother, Kevin, who must have shot up at least three inches since she’d last seen him. He looked close to tears.

What would they think if they knew?

Her knees threatened to buckle. Oh, God. She was doomed, not only to hell, but also to endlessly replay those memories: the whisper of his breath against her neck, the brush of his lips over her bare flesh. Each day, throughout her morning and evening prayers and the chanting of the Divine Office, when she ought to have been filled with the Holy Spirit, she’d been overflowing with thoughts of Jim instead. His skin, pale and smooth as marble. His slender hands with their shy touch that took her breath away. The feel of him thrusting into her, that little gasp he gave, as if caught by surprise.

Help me, Lord.

They say God is in the details, and in the end that was what brought it all to a head. In the collectively held breath that seemed to fill the chapel, swelling up into the rafters, she heard the soft mutter of ancient Sister Helena passing wind. Gerry didn’t have to look around to see noses wrinkling and lips pressed together in helpless mirth. Suddenly the answer to her dilemma became clear: She had no more control over her fate than poor old Sister Helena had over her bowels. However hard she fought it, however much she prayed, her course was set. She had no choice but to navigate it.

BOOK: Taste of Honey
5.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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