Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: HEALTH (10/13/16)
By Ann Grover
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The lamp flickers as the cabin door swings open, and Sister Cecilia’s tunic whirls as she takes a gasping, gagging child from the man crouching through the low opening.
We’d arrived here a year before. Sister Esmé, Sister Cecilia, and myself, grimy and weary from days of travelling, our bodies bruised from colliding together as our cart bounced along the rutted trail. Sometimes, we had to push the cart, forcing it through muskeg, over bushel-sized rocks, around fallen trees, dodging thorny snares that clutched at our muddied habits.
Deliver us from evil, murmured Sister Esmé over and over. Indeed, perhaps the devil himself skulked amidst the towering spruce. I thought to run back, past the endless trees, through the battalions of whining mosquitoes, to a cheery fire and hot tea. Yet what of my vows? Of charity, poverty, and obedience, even to the ends of the earth, unto such a place as this, with its snow and swamps and all manner of ferocity lurking in the forest.
No time to change the bed linens, such as they are, of the rough cot where Magdalena was so recently received by the blessed angels. I tuck small Benjamin beneath the hides while his distraught father implores me to save his son. I look into Benjamin’s mouth, trying not to show my hopelessness. The dragon is there, weaving its choking web. I offer the child’s father the assurance that all is in God’s hands. Thy will be done.
“The magic water,” Benjamin’s father begs. He crosses himself in the way we have taught him. “Please.”
I anoint Benjamin and pray. As I had for Magdalena. And Ruth. Samuel. Paulina and Peter and David. In nomine Patris ...
We came to offer wellness, of body and soul. To help as they brought forth their babies. To instruct them in matters of soap and handkerchiefs and bread. Apply healing salves to their wounds and pains. Guide them to the Great Healer and teach them His ways.
They trust us and share their venison and moose meat and fish unselfishly. They are God’s beloved, for all their curious and peculiar ways, but His precious jewels, nevertheless.
Diphtheria is merciless and shows no partiality. Did not Princess Alice, the Queen’s own daughter, succumb to its unforgiving brutality? What hope have we in the wilderness, with no hospital but this windowless log cabin, with its leather-hinged door and smoking fire? No medicines but a vial of holy water, scraps of linen. Our fervent and ceaseless prayers.
Leaning on her husband, Martha is brought to the cabin. We make pallets on the floor with hides, gathered by Benjamin’s distressed father. He brings us more wood for the fire, stokes it.
I long to lay down, to rest my head beside Benjamin’s. To cast off my tunic, reeking of sweat, blood, smoke, phlegm. Tear away my coif. Bathe. Eat. But Jesus, our gentle Shepherd, encourages me not to lose heart. Glory be to the Son.
Benjamin cries. I brace him as he fights for air. Tears, his, mine, slide down his cheeks. His eyes flutter closed. Blessed sleep. I settle him back against the coarse pillow.
I check the others, stooping to wipe each brow. Sisters Cecilia and Esmé glance up, their gaunt, sallow faces reflecting my own anguish.
Morning, night, morning. It seems each patient breathes easier with the new dawn. Benjamin is sitting up, brighter, his breathing clearer. His father gathers him away. Martha is well enough to leave, too, smiling weakly. Wrested from the grip of the evil one.
My eyes burn, from fatigue, smoke, fetid air. My limbs are heavy, languid, drawing me down, down, down into a murky slough. Please, the door, open the door. Let the air, fragranced with pines and moss, cool me.
I try to speak. I must sleep, but only for a moment, I need to say. Just a small moment. I have a calling, a sacred trust, to impart counsel and guidance to God’s wilderness children, that they may be truly well in all ways. But my voice emerges as naught but a hoarse growl.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners...
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