The Convent of Notre Dame, Southern France
Something was very wrong. I could see it that morning in their pinched faces, the way the nuns flew up the corridor, their heels clipping angrily against the cold, ancient stones of the abbey. Whispers skittering to and fro, hesitant and erratic, like the fragile flicker of the candlelight that just barely illuminated their hurried steps.
My stomach growled and I pressed my fist into my gut, willing my thoughts away from the hunger. “We haven’t had a harvest this poor in decades,” the nuns kept telling us all summer long. Equal parts resignation and censure, as if we’d somehow brought it on ourselves. “God is testing our faith.” God’s test lasted for weeks, then months. Months that, to a hungry girl of eleven years, stretched out with the vastness of eternity. “We must pray for the poor souls who are suffering. We pray for the poor, for the hungry,” the nuns told us each night at vespers, and then again at the morning lauds. The hungry? I wanted to rail back at them. Am I not starving? But I knew better, of course, than to answer the Sisters with anything more than a doleful nod, eyes lowered piously to the floor. I didn’t need my backside to ache along with my empty belly.
In the convent, the only place where we got enough food was the sick ward; it was something we all knew as fact. When my sister, Julie, fell sick last winter, laid up on a pristine cot, tucked in between crisp, white sheets, I’d practically skipped through the halls to the nursing ward. I’d forced myself on her, pressing my lips to hers. Like a stag in rutting season, she’d gasped, her eyes wide with shocked and offended modesty as she chided me with one of Maman’s well-worn scowls.
It had worked—I’d gotten myself gloriously sick, far sicker than Julie even. It had been two weeks of gluttonous eating, weeks of luxuriating in my warm cot, dozing even as I heard the bells chime for matins and the other girls, exhausted, stomachs empty and groaning for bread, shuffling down the dark halls to the freezing chapel for the predawn services. I’d stretched that illness for days, even after my throat had healed and my lungs had cleared. Not only had I lied, but I had lied in order to commit the dual sins of gluttony and sloth. I’d relished every minute of it.
But that morning, the morning when I was certain I was in trouble, it was not because I had feigned sickness. It was not because I had lied to get more food or sleep. No, that morning I had sinned far worse. Thou shalt not steal. I knew the commandment, and yet, I’d stolen. Perhaps not stolen—hidden. Sister Marie-Benedictine had been struggling across the yard during our morning recess when her wheelbarrow had toppled over, her dazzling supply of plump melons rolling across the small patch of parched, yellow grass. She’d enlisted us to help retrieve her bounty, but I’d stepped in front of one and kicked it quickly into a bush and out of sight. I’d just been so famished, and that melon had appeared so ripe and juicy—and so near. I’d felt a momentary pang of guilt, for Sister Marie-Benedictine was one of the kind ones, but my hunger pangs had quickly quashed that lesser discomfort. After Sister left, limping her cart across the remainder of the yard toward the kitchen, I’d enlisted Julie to help me move the melon farther from sight, tucking it away in the back of the yard. Our own treasure.
But someone must have seen. Someone had snitched, and now Mère Supérieure knew. I was certain of it. “Does it hurt?” I asked my sister as we shuffled down the long, dim hallway that led to our dormitory.
“What?” Julie asked.
“You know,” I whispered.
“The beating,” I groaned, my voice betraying my panic.
“How would I know?” Julie frowned. Of course she would not know; she had never committed a transgression like this. Or, perhaps more accurately, she’d never been caught committing a transgression like this. She was far too cautious, her judgment far too sound. I had always been the reckless one.
“I just know they found it.” I gnawed a piece of skin off my finger, the tinny taste of blood seeping into my mouth.
“Stop chewing your fingers,” Julie scolded. Six years stretched between us, half my lifetime. Usually she was more a mother than a sister.
“Why else would they have disrupted our lessons and ordered us back to the dormitory?” I asked, certain of our fate, my hand falling limply to my side.
“Ah, the Clary girls, there you are. Julie. Desiree.” Mère Marie-Claude raced toward us down the corridor, a flurry of white, her wimple fluttering around her face with each hasty step.
Horror of all horrors! Mère Supérieure, Mother Superior herself, here to administer our punishment! God, I will never steal another melon, as long as I live. Please spare me your justice this once. I beg for mercy. Oh, Holy Mother, please intercede with your Son.
But when I glanced back at Mother Superior’s face, it wasn’t anger I detected on her weary features. No, I knew that look, because it mirrored how I myself felt in that very instant; Mother Superior was afraid.
“Girls, your family has been notified to fetch you immediately and take you home, back to Marseille.”
Neither Julie nor I spoke, so stunned were we by this sudden declaration.
“Fetch us?” Julie asked after a moment, my ever-dutiful sister forgetting the proper formality of speech in her confusion.
“Prepare your things at once,” was all Mother Superior offered by way of reply. An image of my own mother’s face, seared with anger—or was it her permanent disappointment?—blurred my vision. What would she say to this?
“Mother Superior, please.” I fell to my knees, the unyielding stone floor receiving my joints with a vicious smack; I’d have bruises, to be sure. I ignored that, raising my hands in supplication: “The fault was entirely mine! I deserve to be sent from school, but not my sister. She played no part. I beg you to—”
“Hush, Desiree.” Mother Superior lifted a long-fingered hand, her face stitching into an impatient scowl. “Quiet, for once, you foolish girl. You will return home, as will all the girls whose families can arrange for safe travel. The others . . . those whose families are abroad, well, we aren’t certain how we shall . . .” Mother Superior exhaled aloud, an uncharacteristic display of some internal strain. “But never mind that. You girls are fortunate. Your family is close. They shall come and take you home, where you will be far safer than at this convent.”
“But . . . take us home? Why? We are not on holiday.” Julie’s voice betrayed the same confusion I felt. Why were we suddenly unsafe here, in the convent? I wondered.
“War,” Mother Superior said, her eyes softening, if only for a moment, as she saw our puzzlement. “You girls must pray. For . . . for all of us. And for France.”
“War?” I repeated the word, incredulous. The sound was alien, the statement as outlandish as if Mother Superior were telling us that the Virgin Mary sat in the dining hall waiting to have bread and milk with us that very instant. “War with whom?” I asked.
Mother Superior frowned. “Ourselves. It’s a revolution.”
Julie took my hand, her palm clammy and cold, as Mother Superior continued: “The people have risen up.”
The words I’d heard so many times in recent months raced across my mind: We haven’t had a harvest this poor in decades.
Mother Superior’s voice pulled me back to her, back to this dark corridor in the damp stone convent. “They seem to believe that the enemies come from the nobility and . . . and the Church. We are not safe here. They are sacking monasteries and setting fire to convents all over the country—stabbing priests, defiling nuns.” She raised her hands, clasped them before her breast in a gesture of prayer. “But I’ve said too much. You girls don’t need to know . . . I do not have time for this.” She blinked, looking at Julie and then turning her eyes on me. “Go to the dormitory at once. Prepare your things. You shall leave this night. I shall pray for you.” Her eyes held mine for a long moment, her expression seeming to indicate a mixture of concern and something else. Was it sadness? Or perhaps fear for my suddenly uncertain future? But then the stern woman pulled her shoulders back, straightening to her full height, and with that, Mère Marie-Claude turned and strode briskly away, offering not another word or backward glance in our direction.
“Revolution,” Julie said in the nun’s sudden absence, her voice barely a whisper. “Killing priests. Burning convents. How shall we ever make it home alive?”
I took my sister’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Papa will get us back safely. Or else Nicolas. Julie, don’t worry, we shall be home by this time tomorrow.” I sounded confident as I said it, and I was, so complete was my faith in our father and our elder brother. And besides, no matter how terrible the news may have been for our countrymen and our clergy, I could not ignore one glorious, welcome truth: at last, we were going home.
Copyright © 2020 by Allison Pataki. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.