Eighteen months had passed since Maire last laid eyes on it. The mere sight of it made her writhe; every pore of her skin twitched, begging to be scratched. She willed herself to remain still to deny Sister Rose the satisfaction of noticing her squirm.
In the Mother Superior’s sadistic, ceremonial fashion, she lifted the umber hairshirt for the assembly to see while trying to veil her elation. Maire could see it, though. Sister Rose’s eyes only seemed alive when she was doling out punishments to her penitents. In those moments her expression eased, her dark walnut eyes lent a misleading, faux kindness.
In the humid, airless dining hall, all eyes focused on the garment. Unlike the hairshirts of old—worn by saints like John the Baptist and St. Patrick—this one resembled a Victorian corset. However, it was not created from fineries like silk and whalebone; instead, it was woven with tawny goat hair, thick and coarse. Steel rods were used as boning, and wire sheathed by leather was laced from bottom to top at the back, making it impossible for its captive to tamper with. It was the Mother Superior’s masterpiece, her crowning jewel that embodied her disciplinary style—perverse. Maire noticed a guarded smirk as Sister Rose laid it before her newest penitent. Her wooden eyes scanned the faces of the room, and then rested gently on her prey.
“It is with a heavy heart that I must discipline those that the Lord has brought to me. For He has sent you to me to help cleanse you of your many sins…else you would still be with your families, whose hearts you have surely wounded with your scandalous deeds.”
Maire watched the new girl intensely. Though younger than herself, the girl’s face carried a mature fierceness. Something about her appealed to Maire. The rest of the penitents kept one eye on the Mother Superior, and the other on the beige beast of burden that lay between her and the girl.
“The day each of you arrived here you were welcomed into the fold. Eventually, through your daily work and contrite hearts, you’ll be able to wash the stain of sin off of your flesh and wicked souls.” Sister Rose paused, locking eyes with Maire, “Though some of you refuse to purge yourselves of your evil ways and properly repent…
“Which bring us to—what’s your name again, girl?” Sister Rose stared through her subject.
“Isolde.” Her voice seemed steady, strong, determined.
“That’s not a proper name, even for a shameful girl like yourself. You will now be called Bronagh. I will give you one last chance to publicly repent for the sins that caused the Lord to bring you to me.”
Isolde lifted her chin, “No. It wasn’t my sin that sent me to this—whatever this Godforsaken place is. ”
Yes, I like this girl very much, Maire thought.
A frightening combination of pleasure and false compassion flooded Rose’s face, “Then you will endure this mortification of the flesh,” she gestured to the hideous brown hairshirt, “so that you might find the necessary humility to repent. With this heat, I suspect that you will be at my feet by morning. ” She snapped her gnarled fingers, summonsing two nuns to wrangle the garment onto Isolde. To Maire’s admiration, Isolde never even flinched.
Hours later, long after lights out but while the moon was still high, Maire awoke and noticed Isolde’s empty cot. She crept to the bathroom and found Isolde next to the commode, quietly crying.
Maire put a finger over her lips. She whispered, “Let me help...but we must hurry.” Maire lifted Isolde’s stiff nightgown up to her neck and began to loosen the straps that bound the brown beast together. Underneath, Maire caught a glimpse of fiery red skin.
“I think I’m allergic...” Isolde mouthed the words as fresh tears spilled onto her cheeks.
“Aye.” Maire shimmied off her ill-fitted cotton underwear, and tore them at the side seam. “I’ll smuggle more from the laundry tomorrow…” She eased the soft fabric next to Isolde’s skin, pulling it taunt as she lined the inside of the hairshirt.
“She’ll kill you if she finds out.”
“Then why are you helping me?”
“Because…I was the last one made to wear that abomination.”
“Oh,” Isolde paused, “how long did you last?”
A rebellious grin crossed Maire’s lips, which quickly dissolved into a solemn grimace, “Till the child growing in my belly almost burst the blasted thing open…”
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