Authors: Priscila Uppal
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
for my mother
wherever she may be
For thee, who, mindful of th' unhonour'd dead,
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,â
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
Wearing a smile or frown
God's face is always there.
It is up to you
if you take your wintry restlessness into the town.
P. K. PAGE
My name was Angela H. then. You may remember me. We went to school together at St. X. School for Girls. I had long brown hair, cut at the waist in a single straight swipe, and I used to wear a tiny silver chain with a faux-gold locket in the shape of a heart, a picture of my mother inside. We knew each other. We all did. By name or by deed. Or at least I thought so at the time. I've had plenty of time here, plenty of time to think about the past and what we did know, or thought we knew, about what we, what I, have done. The air is thick as the stone walls with memories, with ghosts of us. I do not think it sacrilegious to speak so about ghosts. Jesus Christ is a ghost, the Holy Spirit is a ghost, the Bible tells us. I imagine God too, omnipresent and without form, is a ghost haunting my night. A wind in this darkness. I have food and water, a bed and paper. This is all I need.
You may remember a few of the girls began a group, The Sisterhood, and we snuck out of our dormitory rooms to meet. You and I, we were invited to join. We met in the dark of the hallway, our movements anxious, almost animal, feeling our way to Room 313, Rachel's room, the girl with the shoulder-length blonde curls and
light-green eyes, the one we wanted so to impress, the one we believed was the strongest. I can still smell the sweet perspiration, girls' clean preadolescent sweat. It is different from the sweat here, a grown woman's sweat we try to hide by doing the wash early in the morning after pacing in our rooms, restless, alone. The hard sweat of layers of clothing, the heavy habits if we choose to wear them, the blankets we pile on top of our bodies to keep us covered at night. Or the cold, blank sweat of the nightmares many of us have. Before I moved in here, I never would have thought so many nightmares should fill a place of God. Prince of Peace. But I guess we did know. We lived one of our own at St. X. School for Girls. Our sheets were washed then too. The stains of sin, Sister Marguerite would have said, her large chest pounding like a needle on a sewing machine. No one ever found out what happened in Room 313. That's the part that disturbs me most in the middle of the night in this tiny basement room, a single window the height and width of one of the bricks at ground level. I watch feet go by, have come to identify the different boarders and visitors by the kinds of shoes or boots they wear. By the noises they make treading on the grounds. How our footsteps changed. No one confessed, you know. The crosses that hung over blackboards and bulletin boards in the classrooms and the adjoining church were oblivious to our crime, and the nuns only punished us for the ordinary sins of daily living, the banal trespasses of girlhood. No one confessed, until now. If you choose to remain hidden, I will not expose you. But I must confess. It's time. Don't turn away. We held hands once in the dark. You may remember me.
SISTER BERNADETTE CAME BY
to see me this morning with a package. I nodded when she entered, from where I was kneeling on the white square-tiled floor, reciting my morning prayers in white cotton pyjamas, the late autumn air crisp after having left the window open a crack in the night. She smiled, laid the brown wrapped box in the middle of my already-made bed, and shut the door gently, her sneakers echoing softly down the empty basement hall. I had known she was coming because of those shoes; the left one squeaks on the tiled floor. The package held little interest for me, as I assumed it was from my sister, my real sister, Christine, who married a lawyer and has two sons. I washed my hair and ate my breakfast without opening it, compelled to get out, to see the changing leaves of the maple trees on the front lawn. Their thin, flat bodies, forced to fall for the coming winter, have always attracted me. After it has rained, if you hold a leaf tightly, sometimes the colours run onto your hands.
Before returning to my room I went upstairs to the second floor of the convent to help Sister Irene with her pills. She has been
in and out of the hospital, back and forth, the last three years. There was discussion about giving her a room on the first floor, so that stairs wouldn't be a problem when she needed to go back again, but she's settled in her room now and the next trip, we know, will be her last. The doctors can do no more, and they insist she'd probably rather die here, though she has few friends among the other Sisters, the ones left. So many she had known when she first entered this convent, back in the years of World War II, have already died, passed on to where they believe themselves to go. With the onset of her sickness, Sister Irene turned rude and ill-mannered, rushing into rooms without knocking, yelling at a Sister for the tiniest inconvenience she might have caused, muttering under her breath every time she saw a Sister leave the main entrance, implying they were involved in something sinful. In the early stages, most refused to walk by her room, avoided her in the dining hall when she still took her meals there, pretended to have other engagements when she'd try to talk to them in the recreation room. With her time drawing nearer to an end, however, some Sisters have taken it upon themselves to light candles in her name, recite a specific prayer in her favour before bed, or drop off a treat, a bag of butterscotch candies perhaps, which she likes to suck. A few requested Father B. say a weekly Mass for her health. Still, most avoid her room, refusing to pass directly under the archway between her death and our lives.
I too have little affection for Sister Irene, though I am compelled to witness the change in her. Since the stroke, she has lost feeling in her legs and in the left side of her face. Her single bed with its twenty-year-old box spring and mattress is her sole domain. I hold her
bendable drinking straw to the good side of her mouth when I feed her a liquid meal, her dark lips large and soft from inactivity. They used to be so thin, tight, well-sealed, those lips. Now she tells me things. Or she tries to, mumbling incoherently, her tongue unskilled and numb against her teeth as she struggles to form simple syllables. She grips my arm at the wrist as if she would snap it like a twig in her frustration, but she lacks the strength, tries to attract my attention with her brown eyes, while the wrinkles on her face deepen like etchings in stone. She tells me addresses and telephone numbers, listing them off without including names, and I've given up prodding her to remember whom they belong to. She doesn't seem to care anyway. She just enjoys reciting the numbers themselves over and over as if they are well-loved people. It is almost comforting, except the strong spice-like smell of her keeps me at a distance on the stool beside her, her body leaking, forcing itself to the outside. The pills calm her, put her to sleep, her hair thin against her pillow, olive scalp tough as hide. I've touched her scalp as she's slept, pushed my hands against its surface petting her, an attempt to unleash what has become trapped over time. Once, she bolted up, holding her hands in front of her, confused, as if she couldn't understand who these hands, the skin over the knuckles white and bumpy like curds of milk, belonged to. “Death is backwards!” she cried. “Backwards!” It's the only thing she's said to me in the last month resembling a sentence. And I've wanted to ask her what she meant, but it seems as she sleeps, her head pressed against the cloth of her pillow, that she will be taking her secrets with her.
Only in the afternoon, after leaving Sister Irene to her drug-induced peace, did I notice that the address of the convent on the
package was typed, and no return address announced itself. I could not decide at first whether to open the package, although besides the unfamiliarity of the typing, there was no reason for my hesitation. We frequently receive packages from elementary schools, the social services department, or from thoughtful parishioners in thanks for our work or time. A particular man or woman may simply have believed I'd helped them personally, beyond my call of duty, and made out a gift to me. I'd just donate the contents to the convent, inform Mother Superior. She might even praise me, I figured.
Yet deep down I knew. I knew it was no gift I was about to receive. My hands trembling, I was sure my face had lost its colour, though there is no mirror hanging in my room to check such things. I could feel blood leave my cheeks, pump quicker to the heart. I tried to reason I'd exhausted myself with Sister Irene and needed a good nap. Cold, I wrapped the grey wool afghan from my bed around my shoulders. A tiny ceramic hand-painted statue of Mary, a gift from my mother when I received First Communion, which I sometimes hold in the palm of my hand when I think of her, seemed to forsake me from her central place on my dresser.
Do you know who has come for you?
I heard the season's wind ask, beating against my low window, a yellow leaf's face flattened against the glass. I did.
The box was wrapped first in plain brown packing paper, the kind you can buy in rolls at the post office for a couple of dollars. The stamps were Canadian, standard red maple leaves, totalling $7.35, the postmark illegible. When I shook the package, an object
grudgingly slid from side to side, the weight comparable to a medium-sized pot. I tore at the paper with my blunt, bitten fingernails, the bits of packaging on the bed like pieces of bark scraped off a tree. The actual box was made of white cardboard, void of logos, but the type found in department stores, easy to put together, flimsy, the edges folded into wings and taped shut. I checked the door. It doesn't have a lock, but I made sure it was firmly closed. When it is left ajar, my entire enclosure can be seen if someone happens to walk by, the room being only nine by seven feet. Not that many people come by here. To see others I usually need to seek them out by going upstairs. I am the only one living down in the basement. The room was assigned to me when I entered the convent because renovations were being done to the second and third floors due to weather damage. All the Sisters were grouped together on the first floor until construction was finished, bunking like girls, two or four to a room after years of sleeping in their own quarters. The bunks were all filled up. Besides a bathroom, furnace room, and storage area, there is only one room in the basement suitable for living. I took it. When the other rooms became available, I clung to the excuse that I was accustomed to my space and didn't need to move. Mother Superior didn't mind. Better to use the space than leave it vacant. And I honestly felt comfortable in the small room, encased and protected. A single bed, an oak dresser like the kind my father crafted for my mother when I was a child that I found at an antique store, a single folding chair, photographs, a few other mementos, and a large leather tote bag for my sister Christine's letters are all I own. My room doesn't even have a closet. Now I wished there were more places to hide.
The tissue paper inside the package was white and had a faint perfume smell. The strangely familiar scent forced me to take my hands off the box. Lilies. I had accompanied Mother Superior once to the mall to visit the wig lady, a woman who helped the older Sisters, the ones who had lost their hair from too-tight wimples, brush out their wigs. The wig lady wore a similar scent that day, and I ran out of the store without explanation. How could I tell them that the smell made me see blood, blood spilling over the glass counters like fountain water, blood on my hands, my habit, my shoes, on the holiday decorations, blinking in the lights, the store windows, the exits? Blood on the wigs, on the faces of the mannequins, on their Styrofoam lips, and on Mother Superior's scalp, down her round cheeks as the hairnet was fitted. No, I couldn't tell them of the sights occasioned by a woman's perfume. Though it is my belief, if the dead come back to earth, they travel by smell. Lilies.