This is her most pure sanctuary. She sits near enough to hear the throng of bees in their hives. It is honey season, and the hives are busy with their relentless productivity. She reclines on her lounge chair, her robes draping, trailing the grass, the lawns stretching out around her, acres of gardens, woods. The somber dong of the church bells. She wishes to linger here, beside this weeping willow. Hazy light filters through branches, enough to warm but not overheat. A breeze moves the trees, liberates hair from the veil. Her beauty is bone deep now, unchangeable.
She rises, pulls herself away from the ancient sound, as old as the dinosaurs, perhaps the oldest sound on earth, the droning buzz of the honeybee. She begins her slow journey to the chapel, where the brothers will be conducting their own droning buzz. She will be late, which will be noticed. They will have news for her, but it will not be new.
She is much younger, eighteen. Shoes feel to her like everything else constructed by humans, confining, suffocating. Her feet want to be free, her hair on her legs and under her armpits and around her groin want to grow. Living here, in this rustbelt northeastern city, she finds trees and grass in grubby parks where she allows her feet to graze, dipping them in the waters of fountains, pretending she stands in wide fields, clear rivers. The evils of man hide between blades of grass, she thinks. Although she tries to keep an eye close to the ground, a rough piece of glass eludes her, digs deep.
“You’re bleedin’!” A little boy points as his mother drags him away by hand.
The blood comes quickly and copiously. The tissue she pulls from her pocket does little to absorb it all. She presses until the paper is loaded and soaked, until she knows this will not end here.
She limps to a garbage can, pulls out a wad of newspapers, secures a sheet around the gaping wound with a hair tie, and steps onto the bus that miraculously, pulls up. She presents her pass to the disgusted driver.
“What the hell? Jesus,” he says, lets her on.
She sits down, closes her eyes, trusting her keen senses to tell her exactly when to get off.
In the morning she limps into the kitchen. Her father sits slurping instant coffee, watching the blaring news. She approaches the dirty dishes in the sink, begins to wash them, feels his eyes on her back.
“So ya finally cut yourself,” he says.
She scrubs each dish, placing it gently in the rack beside the sink, enjoying, even now, the process.
“I gotta work, unlike some people,” he says, standing.
She summons her courage.
“I’m leaving. I’m going to become a nun,” she states.
He keeps moving toward the door. Her dead mother’s face stares from a shelved picture frame.
“That’ll be a big help around here. Good luck.”
He exits the scene through the side door. She never sees him again.
In some ways she enjoys the warm, flowery scent and hum of the laundry room, but Sister Margaret’s endless jabber ruins the peace of the place.
“-hopefully not that awful beef stew for dinner tonight,” she says, folding towels and checking items off her checklist. She keeps a clipboard on which she notes her running agenda. “I like to think of every little thing I can do each day and do it!” That’s what she said in the beginning, when they first met and she felt the need to explain such things.
Sister Margaret seems to have grown used to the silence that comes in response to her stream of chatter, answering her own questions, offering new topics, no responses necessary. They both know that being a nun is all about acceptance, making the most of a limited existence, or spun more spiritually, finding God in all things. One must work with what one has.
She is not like Sr. Margaret; she finds God only in outside things. She should have chosen a convent in a warmer climate. She had not imagined what it would feel like to be stuck inside for months on end.
“Many hands make short work,” Sister Margaret sing songs.
Christmas Eve holds all the joys and frustrations of convent life. The solitude, prayer, clear spaces to sit and allow the mind to wander. In contrast, the talking people, endless new duties. Tonight: the annual pageant. She is one of five sisters in the chorus. She silently thanks God Sister Margaret is busy with scenery and costumes. No one will notice her escape.
She slips from the back kitchen door and immediately spreads wide her arms and looks up to the sky. Her breath forms clouds before her face and her sandaled feet crunch on the snow. She resists the urge to remove all her clothes and roll on the ground. She runs down the path and back, enjoying the burn of cold rushing into her lungs. She wants to shout, to scream, she wants to laugh, but she doesn’t. She goes to the hives, enjoys the quiet generator of worker bees shivering inside, protecting, warming their queen, a sound more soothing to her than any Christmas carol.
A year of restlessness, change. She tells her superior the convent confines, depresses. She asks to live down the hill at the monastery for the summer with the brothers. She wishes to tend her bees and pray, she says. Her wish is granted. The head brother, Michael, welcomes her, but she eats alone at meals.
That is where she sees him, sitting with his head down, spooning soup slowly into his mouth. She detects his scent, like burlap, or dirt, or maybe leather. She also senses his sadness, deep down to his roots, in the lines of his eyes and the turn of his mouth, like the smog from her bee smoker. He sips water from a glass and looks at her.
Her first swarm in the new place comes that July. Thousands of bees glob together on a nearby tree limb. Not surprising. this is their time for reproducing, growing, finding new space. She puts on her bee veil and gloves and surveys the branch. The brother from the refectory appears out of nowhere, stands beside her. With no gloves or veil, he grabs onto the branch and gives it two sharp shakes. The bees fall in one mass onto the box below. Those that land on the ground hustle up its walls, attempting entrance. They are worker bees, desperate to stay with their queen.
The bread at the monastery is very good. She follows its yeasty wafts coming from the kitchen. He is there, kneading the dough. He explains the sour dough starter, how he made it, feeds it, stores it, and how it continues to do what is necessary. He makes her a cup of coffee and they sit down at the table.
“Nature is perfect, much better than us,” she says softly.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“I like the quiet, the prayer, the Mass,” she says.
“And you?” she asks.
“Sick up here,” he taps his forehead, “Depression. Alcoholism. The works.”
He wraps a fresh loaf in a towel and hands it to her.
She carries the radiating bundle back to her room.
In the shadows of the monastery, they sit together on the lawn. She removes blue Rosary beads, holding them up, they sparkle in the moonlight. He shows her his prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. They make the sign of the cross and pray. Cicadas chirp, mosquitos bite on their ankles. She points to the stars and the moon, tells him how the night sky has been like an old friend, a great comfort. She tells him she has never felt a part of the human world.
In late July he returns. She is harvesting honey, scraping it from the screens. They sit down on the ground, slather it on the bread they pull off in hunks.
In this moment, she does not pray or ask God or wonder. She opens herself to the brother and he enters. She feels whole, healed, satisfied with this act of which she has deprived herself, which bees and other creatures engage in so freely and without restraint.
The next morning, after Mass, the old brother approaches.
“Sister, I am afraid your tardiness caused you to miss the announcement.”
She does not like to look deeply into their eyes. She looks down at the squares of slate she stands on.
“One of our brothers died in his sleep last night. Natural causes.”
She stands in the silence.
“A sad day for us. We’ve lost a friend,” the older man says.
She bows slightly, drifts down the hall to her room.
“Sister?” he calls.
She stops, turns.
“I’m afraid we will need time alone to grieve this loss. You will leave here at the end of the week,” he says.
Decades pass. Sister Margaret comes closer into view, setting down toast and tea on a side table.
“Ah,” she picks up the toast, examines it. “Sour dough.”
“Your recipe,” Sister Margaret says.
“How are you feeling?”
“I think I might die tonight,” she says.
“Do you want to die tonight?”
“Just wheel me up to the window.”
Sister Margaret obeys, opens the window wide. The cold January bites back.
She takes in the wide fields, the weeping willow where her bee hives once stood, the monastery down the hill, everything all silvery, shimmering with frost.
She feels in her pocket, hands Margaret the blue beads she keeps there.
“You’ve always treasured them,” she protests.
“You know. It’s all got to go.”
Margaret acquiesces, slips them in her pocket.
“Shall I get the others? We could stay with you tonight,” Margaret says.
She doesn’t answer. Margaret leaves, returns with the six remaining sisters.
Surrounding her, they hum a familiar hymn. They hold her safe, close, as bees do in winter.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.