Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 570 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, being published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers is due out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
By Steve Carr
See Sister Monica as she bends over the furrow in the ground, her knees in the dirt, grasping a trowel in one hand. In the heat of the morning, sweat pours from under her coif and wimple and streams down her face. Watch as she examines the bright green shoot of a tomato plant, tenderly taking its small leaves between her fingers and peering at them intently. A hot breeze blows across the convent garden carrying with it bits of dirt she recently tilled in the dry, crumbling earth. The cawing of a crow flying overhead catches her attention. She looks up at it and shields her eyes from the glare of the sun, dropping bits of soil from her gardening gloves onto the front of her habit, above the chest hemline of a denim apron that protects the rest of it from getting dirty.
“Damn,” she mumbles.
See her look around to make sure she wasn’t heard. Except for her, there are no other sisters in the garden that covers a small square of land behind the convent. There is a small grove of lemon trees on the border of the garden. The unpicked lemons that dangle from the drooping limbs are brown and withered, like oversized walnuts. In the center of the grove standing on a white marble base is a bronze statue of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners. The patina that covers most of his beard and robe is a mixture of brown and green hues. His face enclosed in a hood is shiny as if it has just been polished. His expression on his bearded face is benevolent. On the bronze plate fixed to the front of the marble base the inscription reads: I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. Ecclesiatses 2:5.
Watch as Sister Monica bows her head and says a brief, silent prayer. She then places the trowel in the empty wicker basket sitting beside her and slowly stands. Her movements are slow, deliberate. She has learned to overcome her tendency to rush with anything she does. Prayer is sedation. She removes her gloves and puts them in the basket and then attempts to brush the dirt from her habit, causing the smudge to expand. Suppressing her frustration that wearing a white habit to do gardening in frequently causes such accidents, she steps across several rows of furrowed ground where dead sprouts from other recently planted tomato plants stick up from the earth. There is a pile of rotting wooden stakes sitting on the edge of the garden that were once used to hold up growing plants. See her walk around them, consciously avoiding glancing at the pile; they are a reminder that nothing no longer grows to maturity in the garden.
Hear the rusty hinges on the door to the garden shed squeak as she pulls it open. The heat inside the shed rushes out, escaping the entrapment of wood and corrugated tin, and washes over her, adding to her physical discomfort. She grew up in the southern United States, a daughter of an itinerant farm worker, but this weather – the unrelenting and unusual high temperatures – is almost more than she can bear. She hasn’t told anyone in the convent that she suffers in the heat, but she has frequently told God. Holding the door open with her foot, she pushes her sleeve up her forearm, closes her eyes, and wipes the sweat from her face with the back of her arm. Watch as she opens her eyes and sees the naked young man lying on the floor of the shed. His physique resembles that of Michaelangelo’s David. With her heart pounding, a gasp that escapes her lips is followed by her taking several staggered steps back. The door closes as she drops the basket and stares, dumbfounded, at the shed.
See her turn and stare at the convent as the bell is rung for the sisters to assemble in the chapel for pre-lunch prayers. Look at the small clouds of dust her shoes kick up as she runs across the garden and to the back door of the convent where she stops, hastily removes the apron and hangs it on a hook. Catching her breath, she says a quick prayer, crosses herself, and calmly opens the door and goes in.
At the doors to the chapel she inserts her hands into her sleeves, crosses her arms, and gets in line behind Sister Margret. She is bursting to tell someone, anyone, about the man in the shed, but entering the chapel she sees Mother Superior seated in her throne-like chair on the dais at the end of the aisle that separates two long rows of pews where the sisters sit. She knows to say anything at all would incur the Mother Superior’s wrath, delivered with terrifying quietude.
Watch as Sister Monica sits on a pew on the left side of the aisle, crosses herself, bows her head, and begins to pray. “Hail Mary, full of grace, there’s a man in the garden shed,” she utters in a whisper so low that she alone knows she spoke.
After lunch, Sister Monica is at the sink and scrubbing a large pot. Mother Superior had passed by her before they had sat down to eat and glanced at the spot of dirt and frowned, but said nothing. Sister Monica uses suds from the dishwater to try to remove the smudge of dirt on her habit, spreading the dirt even more, turning a small part of her habit just beneath the neckline a dull gray, like a gathering storm cloud. See how she glances at what has happened to her habit, and her own dour expression, reflected in the shiny pot. During the meal the only words spoken by any of the sisters were related to scriptures. Still rattled by the morning’s events and unable to think of a scripture that applied to finding a man in a garden shed, Sister Monica simply asked the other sisters to pray for her to be more accepting of God’s mysteries.
Hear Sister Angeline as she comes into the kitchen, the soles of her shoes shuffling across the tiled floor. She stops in the middle of the kitchen and gently claps her hands. Sister Monica and the other sisters stop what they are doing and turn to face Sister Angeline. Sister Angeline is very old, older than any of the sisters in the convent. Her face is lined with wrinkles. Her voice is raspy, from age and disuse. “Mother Superior wishes to remind those of you who work in the gardens and grounds of the convent to make sure everything is in readiness for the visit from the Bishop, who is fond of gardens and such. He will be here first thing tomorrow morning.”
Without looking directly at Sister Angeline’s face, whose eyes and fixed stare reminded her of a bird of prey, Sister Monica asks, “Will the Mother Superior permit us extra time this afternoon to prepare for the Bishop’s visit?”
“Yes,” Sister Angeline replies and then turns and leaves the kitchen.
The intense heat of late afternoon envelopes Sister Monica as soon as she steps out the back door of the convent. She stops for a moment and glances up at the sun that fills the sky like a glaring white neon light and shakes her head, dismayed. The dry spell has lasted longer than the previous summer, which lasted longer than the summer before that. First, making certain there is no one who will see her, she grabs the apron and rushes across the garden to the shed. She stands in front of the door for several moments before opening it. She ducks down as a dove flies out and disappears beyond the brick wall that surrounds the convent. Inside the shed, the man is still there, in the same position he was in that morning.
She steps into the shed, letting the door close behind her. In the ambient light, the man’s body emits a gentle glow of its own, as if he is lit from the inside. In the dim light, his nudity seems more pronounced; there is no escaping the sight of it. She lays the apron across his lower body and then kneels down beside his head and stares at his face. His complexion is smooth, without any imperfections. Light brown curls cascade over his forehead and encircle his ears. She places her hand on his forehead only because it is was the first thing her mother did whenever anyone was ill. His brow is damp; the slight perspiration that covers it feels like the cool spring water she swam in before leaving home seven years before. She then leans over him, placing her ear to his lips and listens to his slow, steady exhalations of air, and feels the warmth of his breath on her cheek, like the feel of a butterfly landing on cotton. There is an intimacy to the moment that embarrasses her and she sits back on her heels and watches the rise and fall of his chest.
“He doesn’t seem harmed in any way,” she mutters aloud and then says to him, “How did you get in here?”
See his eyelids flutter, and then open. His eyes as blue and clear as a cloudless sky gaze at her for several moments.
In his eyes she sees the world as she imagines it should be, as God meant it to be. She sees its purity and vastness. She also sees her own inadequacies as a nun; the impurities of her soul. She’s certain that the man who lies in the dirt is a messenger sent by the almighty. An angel.
He speaks one word, “Thirst.”
Startled by his voice, watch as she quickly rises from the floor, grabs the watering can, and leaves the shed.
Sister Francine is standing in the garden and turns to see Sister Monica.
“Is there any hope?” Sister Francine asks waving her hand around at the dead and dying vegetation. Sister Francine has cancer and has been on chemotherapy for several weeks. Despite being in constant pain, she has refused pain medication, preferring to pray instead. Her cheeks are sunken and her skin color sallow. Beneath her headdress her short red hair has fallen out, leaving her bald. Sister Francine and Sister Monica are friends even though friendships among the sisters is discouraged. “You’re here to serve Jesus,” Mother Superior often reminds the sisters.
Stammering, Sister Monica points at the shed and says, “In there, a man – an angel – sent by God.”
Sister Francine smiles, weakly. “What are you talking about?”
“In the shed, an angel, perhaps the archangel Michael,” Sister Monica responds breathlessly as she turns on the faucet attached to a garden hose. She puts the end of the hose in the watering can and begins filling it. “I looked into his eyes and saw my soul.”
Look at the befuddled expression on Sister Francine’s face. “Why would the archangel appear here, at this convent, in this garden?” she asks.
“Where better to begin to quench the earth?” Sister Monica replies. “The only word he has spoken is thirst. He speaks of his need and the earth’s need at the same time.”
Sister Francine would like to go to the shed to humor the only other sister in the convent who she can talk to in the middle of the night when the pain that courses through her body is at its worse, but this is not how or where the archangel would appear, not in a garden shed, that she feels certain of. “You’ve spent too much time out in this heat,” she says.
Sister Monica yanks the hose from the can and tosses it aside. As a stream of water runs from the hose into the garden and forms a small puddle on the hard ground, she stands, picks up the can, and goes to the door of the shed. “Come see for yourself,” she says.
She opens the door and looks in. See her drop the can and fall to her knees. The man is gone.
At evening meal, during which time limited casual conversation is permitted, Sister Monica silently eats the salad made from wilted and colorless vegetables brought to the convent from the market in the nearby town. Sister Angeline, sitting to her right, tremulously holds her spoon as she slurps her soup. Eating at the head of the table, Mother Superior frequently glances up from her salad at Sister Monica, causing the young nun to squirm uncomfortably in her chair knowing that it can’t be because of her habit; she was able to change into a clean one before supper.
See her try to surreptitiously try to get the attention of Sister Francine who is seated at another table by winking at her. Sister Francine has avoided her since the unfolding of events in the garden earlier in the day.
After the meal is finished and the dishes and silverware have been gathered up and taken into the kitchen, the sisters remain at the tables, their heads bowed, offering prayers of thanks for the meal while awaiting to be dismissed from the dining room by the Mother Superior. When she stands, a hush falls over the room and every sister looks at her, reverently and expectantly.
“In final preparation for the Bishop’s visit, I ask that Sisters Beatrice and Monica join me for a walk around the convent grounds before the evening prayers.”
See the stunned expression on Sister Monica’s face. The Mother Superior has been out in the garden many times, but has never asked her to accompany her there. She glances at Sister Francine to see if she can detect in her friend’s facial expression some sign that she had spoken to Mother Superior about the man in the garden shed. Or more precisely, and inexplicably, the man who wasn’t in the shed. Sister Francine’s face is a mask; a shield to block her from crying out from the intense pain.
As the other sisters rise and file out of the room to go to the chapel, Sisters Beatrice and Monica stand in place where they had eaten and do not move until Mother Superior waves her hand and leads them from the dining room. They walk down the long corridor of the convent in silence. Before Sister Beatrice opens the back door, Sister Monica raises her eyes heavenward and says a silent prayer that when the door is opened, a miracle performed by the archangel will have restored the garden to the days when what grew in it fed the sisters and the poor and needy in the surrounding towns with whom the bounty was shared.
The door is opened and where the garden stood is a large pool of muddy water fed by the garden hose that leads to it.
Watch as in the middle of the night Sister Monica gets out of her bed and quietly leaves her cell. The wing of the convent where the sisters sleep is quiet and full of shadows cast by the pale moonlight that streams in through the windows at both ends of the corridor. Barefoot, her footsteps on the tiles are no more than whispers as she treads lightly to the door of Sister Francine’s cell. She taps lightly on the door – a tap that could easily be mistaken for the fluttering of a bird’s wing from outside – and then enters her friend’s cell. She sees Sister Francine on her bed, lying on her back, her cover pulled up to her neck.
Standing at the door, Sister Monica says, “There was a man in the garden shed, I swear it. Maybe it wasn’t the archangel, but there was a man.”
Sister Francine says nothing.
Awaiting her friend to say something, to absolve her of the guilt she feels for destroying what was left of the garden just before the Bishop’s visit, Sister Monica sighs heavily. “Am I wrong to want to believe that the archangel would visit here, visit me?” she asks. Getting no response she turns and leaves Sister Francine’s cell.
Hear the shrillness in Mother Superior’s voice as she calls out from the end of the corridor. “What are you doing in Sister Francine’s cell?” she demands to know.
Unable to find the words, an explanation of any kind that would be acceptable, Sister Monica is struck mute.
Listen to the thudding of Mother Superior’s slippered feet on the tiles as she marches to Sister’s Francine’s cell, pushes Sister Monica aside, opens the door and goes in. A few moments later, Mother Superior calls out calmly, as if the words she says has no meaning, “Sister Francine is dead.”
The Bishop is thin and frail and appears lost sitting in Mother Superior’s chair behind her large mahogany desk. He has his hands folded and resting on the top of a small Bible that he brought with him. The bright red ribbon that divides the pages spills out of the Bible like streaming blood.
Sister Monica is unable to take her eyes off of it.
“Now, tell me again about this man who was in the shed,” he says, his voice as high-pitched and light as that of a flute.
“I was certain he was the archangel come to restore the garden,” Sister Monica replies.
“Why would the archangel Michael appear to you and no one else?”
Watch as Sister Monica slowly glances around the room, at the books on the shelves, the religious paintings on the walls, the iciness in Mother Superior’s stare.
“Because I have such thirst,” she says.
The Galway Review 10 – Printed edition -April 2022