Sister Margaret rose from her armchair on the third try. That was better than yesterday, but worse than two days back. Or was it three days? In any case, it was better than yesterday. Her spine gave a ripple of cracks - her back’s morning praise to the Lord that she was still alive - as she bent to retrieve the slipper that had fallen from her foot. Sister Margaret rubbed her side with a soft groan, looking down at her feet. Her right foot stood bare and pale against the stone floor. She coaxed her toes into a wiggle. “Here now. The Lord comes like a thief in the night; you must not be asleep when he arrives.” She tossed the slipper back to the floor and eased her foot into it.
Chill air brushed Margaret’s arms as she crossed the room. She shivered. The convent’s heater had been twitchy this past year. Margaret remembered the days when she could have called in an electrician from the city. The problem could have been dealt with in a day. But the city had blinded itself to their convent, was deaf to their pleas. Its face was pointed to the bright horizon of progress. Looking back to fix something as old as electricity would be inefficient. Margaret snorted. Then she bowed her head and crossed herself. Her thoughts led her so often into sin and judgment. She prayed for God to lend her His readiness to love and care.
Dawn barely offered her chambers its early morning gray. She shuffled to the window, pulled back the drapes. Beyond the convent’s garden and henhouse, the city rose resplendent and shimmering. Its haze of heaven-spearing towers masked the sky, but early sunlight glimmered on its bronze-domed heights. Arches of spun glass sewed the city together. Even the streets winked gold, as if angels danced across the cobbles. The arm of the convent reached toward the silver tresses of the city and the city shrank from it. The city would not risk its beauty. It would not chance realizing how far it had fallen.
Margaret pursed her lips and let the drapes sag back into place. Some mornings she forgot about the city. The Sodom, the Gomorra strangling her convent and her four remaining sisters. But she could never forget for long. The city lurked behind every window, and there weren’t enough drapes to keep it out. It had bitten from the apple and realized that bodies could be preserved. Without death, what was religion? The sisters would not take the city’s shot of eternal life and became dispensable because of it. The city was Eve, holding the apple out to them. An end to pain and sorrow and digging graves in the frost of morning. But the convent would not take the apple. They were stronger than Adam. The old Prioress Elaine had called their convent an ark. An ark had no business letting the water of the world onto its decks.
It took Margaret several minutes to struggle into her habit. Dratted thing! It was far too stiff. But God smite her if she didn’t insist on wearing it. She remembered the day Sister Abertha had come back from the city with her habit stained with blood. Abertha hadn’t lived through the night. The city had made her a martyr for no other reason than being a woman of the cloth. And so the Lord smite Margaret if she did not wear that cloth, the cloth Abertha had died for.
Dressed at last, Sister Margaret shuffled to Sister Alys’s room. Margaret tapped on the door. She heard Alys’s soft acknowledgment and entered. The room was brighter than Margaret’s. The curtains hung open, illuminating the elderly sister in bed, quilt drawn to her chin. Alys’s face was as puckered as if she had bitten a bundle of pine needles, the skin whorled in oak-bark wrinkles.
“Good morning, Sister,” Margaret said. “Shall I draw your drapes? You should not have to look at that sight.”
Sister Alys rolled her head across the pillow toward the city. Margaret pulled back the covers and readied Alys’s wheelchair. At last Alys cleared her throat with a hiss of air. “I do not mind looking, Margaret. We must remember why we are here. The sight gives me the fire I need to get out of bed.”
The two sisters smiled at each other. Smiles of crooked yellow teeth, stained with cynical humor. Oh, the city was beautiful. But so, too, had been the tree of knowledge. The tree of life and death, rather than knowledge of good and evil, was the temptation the city had fallen for. But it had fallen all the same. The convent aged and crumbled, while the city rose eternally young, blessed with science and progress. The words stung Margaret’s tongue like snakebites.
It took four tries to get Alys out of bed, and by the time the elderly sister sat in her wheelchair both women were panting.
“Come, then, Sister,” Margaret said when she’d regained half her breath.
Supporting herself with the chair handles, Margaret pushed Alys into the cloister. They met Sister Loraine on the walk to morning prayers. Loraine was the youngest of Margaret’s remaining sisters, a dandelion-seed wisp whose habit hung about her hollow shoulders like sackcloth. Margaret remembered when Loraine had danced through the city, giving the lilies she grew to anyone and everyone, each with a psalm tied around the stem. But since Abertha died, none had left their ark and none had entered. Much of Loraine’s laughter and dance had died now. She still smiled at Margaret, though, as she wobbled forward.
“Prioress,” Loraine said as she took one handle of Alys’s wheelchair.
“Sister,” Margaret said, making room for Loraine to lean on Alys’s wheelchair.
The three sisters gathered themselves before the steps leading down to the circle of the prayer room. Sisters Clement and Dolora were waiting below. Margaret saw the baggy skin around Clement’s eyes relax as they entered. Only a few months ago – or had it been a year? – Sister Faith had not appeared for morning prayer. Sister Clement, the hardiest of them all - tall and solid-limbed - had made the trip upstairs to find her dead. Margaret remembered digging the grave. Sometimes she still felt the frost of that morning in her bones, felt it burning in her fingers. The city had watched as she dug, its windows gleaming in satisfaction. She had almost heard it whispering. One less. One less.
The five sisters joined their wispy voices in song. Even Sister Dolora wavered wordlessly along, her lips moving out of habit. Sister Margaret squinted at the notes, trembling across the paper in her shaky grip. When had they begun to sound like old women? Hadn’t it been only a few years since their voices rose beyond the stone walls and reached the city in its splendor?
Once they finished morning prayers, Sister Clement took the trip up to the dining hall with Loraine and Dolora. Then she returned to assist Margaret with Alys. This procedure took more than ten minutes. The old sister clutched the arms of her chair as they maneuvered her up the steps, muttering that the city in all its riches could certainly afford to have a ramp put in. Margaret’s brows lowered. What had happened to charity and caring for the poor? She could still remember the days when the city would bring them supplies and children would visit with bright paper cards for the sick sisters…
Margaret caught her thoughts before they could go farther. She laid a hand against the convent wall, almost feeling the thrum of water beyond her ark. She took a breath, bracing against that power, drawing strength from the stone of the convent. “It is not for us to say, Sister.”
Alys looked at her. Her lips quivered, as if she would cry. But Alys’s lips always quivered these days. “Of course. We must only pray, Margaret.”
At each day’s end, Margaret opened the outer doors of the convent. They grew heavier with the years - surely from the weight of the city’s sin soaking into the wood. Evening chill curled around her legs. Sunrays strobed into the convent, stabbed into the security of their ark. The city flashed hard and brilliant beyond. The towers reared so tall, their endless gleaming glass hiding the sky. Margaret would have wept if she’d had any tears left. The city denied her even a sight of the heavens.
And why should she open these doors? Why should she make her sisters hobble into the cold and wind on their convent’s landing? The city had turned from them, why should they stand every day at its feet, crying for it to listen, praying for it to return?
“Margaret,” Clement said.
Margaret shuffled outside. Her four sisters followed. They stood in the wind and the light and the splendor at the center of the city. The city rose to obscene heights all around. Every building reached heavenward, but with no more thought for its height than power. The tower of Babel returned to earth.
Sister Margaret took a breath and prayed for the city. Her sisters joined her, and the wind whipped their words away. Margaret hardly paid attention to the prayer. She had said it every day for so many years she had ceased to know the meaning. Instead, she watched Sister Loraine leaning against the wind. It would carry her off if it had its way, yet still the frail sister chanted her wavering hopes for the city. Sister Dolora stared with blank eyes at the towers leering from every side. Margaret didn’t know if Dolora even remembered she was frightened of the city. Sister Clement held Loraine and Dolora’s hands in her own, but Margaret could see the listlessness of the gesture. The hopelessness. And so even as she beseeched God to save the city, Margaret cursed it.
Then she prayed for forgiveness. They were all sinners. She had no right to judge. That was God’s duty alone. There was a reason why they were an ark. There was a reason for everything. Noah had come down after the flood and the world had been cleansed. The city would repent, its waters would recede. Her ark would not be drowned. It would not be. She prayed for the strength to keep believing. For strength, for strength.
A small scuffling sound beyond the convent’s landing drew Sister Margaret’s glance. A boy stood before the lowest step. His dirt-smeared skin was pale as the sunlight glaring down, his arms twig-thin as Loraine’s. He stared at the five sisters.
Margaret stared back. A boy. It had been years since she had seen a child. Years and years. Slowly, Margaret sank her weight to her hips, leaning on her knee and stretching her other hand to the boy. She wished she had candy. Children liked candy, didn’t they?“Come here, boy. Don’t be frightened. Come here.”
The child looked at her, then back to the city.
“Are you hungry?” Margaret asked. Her voice sounded strange in her own ears. It had been a long time since she had spoken this soft before the city.
The boy nodded.
“We have food.” The boy looked thin enough to accept even their meagre fare, but Margaret vowed to break open their coffers and give up a portion of her own rations. If only the boy would come closer... “Will you come inside with us? It’s warmer.”
The boy stared around him. He looked at the sharp beauty of the city and the black habits of the sisters. All five women held their breaths. Looking at him, Margaret smiled. She knew that fragility, saw herself in him and a future beyond him. The expression felt strange and she smiled wider.
The boy twitched his lips, as if copying a movement he had never seen. He came up the steps. It had been too long since Margaret saw the dove grace of youth. It seemed God held him with streamers, so his feet barely brushed the ground. It seemed the boy had wings.
“What is your name, child?” Loraine ventured.
The sisters exchanged glances.
“Peter,” Margaret said, bending to take the boy’s dirt-lined hand. “That is a good name. A strong name. We can tell you about it as you eat.”
The five sisters turned back to their ark, the smallest castoff shard of the city cradled in their midst.