Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: HOT (08/10/17)
By Ann Grover
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“The chickens are dead, Sister Benilde.”
My wimple is damp, and sweat trickles down my neck as I follow Sister Agnes to the henhouse, past the forlorn garden, which is nought but dried stalks and cracked earth. Even the weeds are parched.
The chicken carcasses are already putrid. We toss the bodies in the charnel pit, alongside others.
“We shall die,” Sister Agnes says wearily.
We should have wrung the chickens’ scrawny necks before they succumbed. I could have boiled their pitiful bones. Instead, for supper, I make biscuits, barely larger than communion wafers, from the last of the flour and the melted butter.
The abbess prays, then raises her eyes from the platter of miserable biscuits to glare at me.
“Sister Benilde, where is the soup?”
“There are neither vegetables nor chickens, Mother.”
“Were they stolen? Did you give them to the poor?” Her eyes pierce me. “Or have you eaten the provisions yourself?”
“No, Mother. The heat...”
“You blame God?
“No, Mother, but...”
“I shall expect soup tomorrow. You are excused.”
Face flaming, I leave the table.
The unrelenting warm weather is God’s judgment poured out upon us, the abbess says; someone in our midst is nurturing sin. Only when the sin is revealed and the offender repentant, will God end our suffering with cool breezes and restoring rains.
At confession, which the abbess has imposed upon us five times a day so that she may more fervently search for the hidden iniquity, I plead slothfulness. Sister Agnes confesses to dereliction of duties; Sister Mary Patrick accuses herself of dejection. Even docile, smiling Sister Beatrice is charged with immoderate levity.
In the small hours of the night, even at Matins, the heat does not abate. The darkness is a woolen blanket, suffocating us, our supplications as dust in our mouths.
The next morning, after completing my penance of washing the abbess’s underthings, I search the cellarium for a dried bean, a withered potato, a forgotten walnut. But there’s only cobwebs; the sacks and crocks were emptied days before. Desperate, I fill the kettle with well water, which is clouded and odorous, and at suppertime, ladle boiled water into each bowl. The abbess peers into her dish.
“What’s this, Sister Benilde?”
“You mock me?”
“It is what God provided.”
“You mock God.”
I am dismissed again.
My penance is to sweep the cloister with a nearly bristle-less brush.
The next day, Sister Agnes finds a few grains of corn abandoned by the expired chickens, and I gather brittle leaves from the garden. It’s soup, of sorts.
I confess pride.
My penance is to stand in the sun at noontime. God’s own eye will scorch the iniquity from my wicked heart and so save us all, the abbess says.
At first, I am grateful for the respite from the futile search for food. But the rays intensify, and stinging sweat streams beneath my tunic. There’s no breeze, just searing air. I am lightheaded, faint. Crows with flames for wings alight on my shoulders.
A rumble, and I know it for thunder, not the pounding of my fear-smitten heart. A haze screens the sun, transforming it into a crimson orb, and I smell smoke. Somewhere, dry grass, a tree, a forest, has been ignited by the lightning. I gasp, inhaling the breath of Lucifer, fumes from Gehenna.
Then a zephyr, a whisper of freshness, caresses my cheek. A raindrop falls at my feet, a puff in the dust, then another. A roiling grey cloud billows across the scarlet sun, blinding the all-seeing eye, and a deluge descends, enough to extinguish the fire, enough to surge over the stones of the courtyard in a cleansing flood.
The sisters run out, hands uplifted in wonderment, faces upturned. And the abbess. The abbess tears off her wimple, her tunic, her freshly laundered underthings. She whirls in the downpour, her face turned heavenward, arms flung wide.
And the sight of her pale, spindly limbs flailing in the rain, and her shorn, streaming hair, provokes me to mercy, to love her, to forgive her, for without a doubt, a fierce and fiery madness had been kindled in us all.
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