Friday, May 23, 2014

Fiction: Plainsong

by John Popham
They kept Sister Clarine in the convent’s basement.  The door that led to the stairs from the kitchen was thick oak; a relic from a different age.  But the sisters were glad for it, and its old fashioned lock.  Sometimes Clarine spoke to them through the keyhole.  That was bearable.  However, mostly she sang, and that was not.

The sisters had abandoned the kitchen two days earlier as no one could listen to Clarine’s singing long enough to prepare a meal.  Beautiful singing in words they didn’t understand, but something in the words, coupled with the unearthly quality of Clarine’s newfound voice was deeply distressing to the nuns.  It seemed to resonate within their heads and within the heart and soul.  And for all its beauty, there was no pleasure or comfort to be found in it, but rather something cold, relentless and unforgiving.  It filled them with deep anxiety, made their heads ache and their noses bleed.

Mother Superior Mariella called the Chancery the day they locked Clarine in the basement.   A bemused Father Keener visited the next day, prepared for yet another convent’s claim of miracles and heavenly intervention on the part of their patron saint.  He was appalled to find the sisters had locked one of their own away in the dark without food or water.  He railed at them for “utterly medieval behavior” and demanded Clarine be brought up at once.  The sisters shrank back from him, fear in their eyes.  

Keener looked at the Mother Superior, who made no move to order them, but handed him the key instead.  Keener huffed in anger and stormed into the kitchen.  He made it as far as the second basement step before he turned and fled, dropping the heavy barrel key on the stones of the kitchen floor.  The sisters rushed to throw their weight against the door, in case Sister Clarine should try to escape.  They locked the door again and retreated to the chapel.

It was the Mother Superior herself who finally took matters in hand.  The Chancery was waiting for direction from Rome.  Sister Clarine had been four days locked in the basement without food or water.  When one of the novices said outright that she wished Clarine’s suffering would shut her up, Mariella scowled at her.

“That’s enough,” she said.  “Something has to be done.”

Some sisters followed her as far as the common room, but dared go no further.  As she approached the kitchen Mariella could hear Clarine singing.  Sweat began to bead on the Mother Superior’s forehead and trickle down the center of her back.  She took the key from her pocket and slid it into the lock as her nose and ears began to bleed.  She hauled back the heavy door, and the sound of Clarine’s voice struck Mariella like a hammer.  Her knees buckled and she clutched at the railing to keep herself from pitching down the steps. 

“Clarine,” she called into the dark. “Clarine, stop it!”

The voice fell silent.

Mariella stood, panting for a moment, wiped blood and sweat from her face.  She pulled the door closed behind her, locked it, and dropped the key back in her pocket.

“Clarine?” She spoke into the silence as she stepped quietly down the stairs. “Clarine?”

“Yes. Mariella,” The voice that came from the darkness was Clarine’s, but thin and raspy.  Exhausted.

Mariella fumbled for the light switch at the base of the stairs.  She found it, pushed it up, and the basement was flooded with light.

Sister Clarine lay back against the boiler on the basement’s dirt floor.  Her veil was pulled off revealing short red hair, shot with gray.  She was filthy, her cheeks hollow, her lips cracked and split.  In a circle around her were dozens of dead rats.  She gestured at them.

“They came to hear,” she said.

Mariella stepped off the stairs and moved closer.

“To hear what, Clarine?” she asked.

“The truth,” Clarine answered.  Her smile was beatific.

“Your singing?” Mariella asked.

Clarine nodded, weakly.  She opened her mouth and the singing began again.

Mariella felt herself beginning to black out.  “No, Clarine! You’re hurting me!”  She lurched forward, grabbed the nun by the shoulders and shook her.

Clarine stopped singing and peered at Mariella, trying to focus.

“Of course it hurts,” she said.  “We were never meant to hear it. But isn’t it beautiful?”

“What is it?” asked Mariella.  “We don’t understand.”

“No,” said Clarine, with a sigh.  “I told you.  You were never supposed to hear it.  It wasn’t made for us.”

“What wasn’t?”

“The divine,” she said.  “The infinite.  We were meant to search for God.  Not to find God.”  She began to whimper and put her hands over her face.

“Hush now. Hush,” Sister Mariella took a handkerchief from her sleeve and, pulling Clarine’s hands down, began to wipe the face of the younger nun.

“Something is wrong, Sister, and I don’t know what it is.  But I don’t think it’s to do with God.  Men find God every day without....”

“No!” Clarine barked.  She grabbed onto Mariella’s wrists with surprising strength.

“No, they don’t. They see shadows,” she said.  “Shadows of God.  A Reflection,”  She let go of Mariella’s wrists and slumped back against the water heater.

“But I did it,” she said.  “I searched and searched all these years. I prayed so hard Mariella, so hard.  And I finally did it.  Seen God, heard the songs of angels.  Seen how small and insignificant the human soul is.”

Her head lolled over and she looked Mariella in the eyes.

“It’s a terrible thing.  I never knew.”

Above, the nuns listened hopefully to the long silence.  Then the singing began again.  This time, a duet.

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