If God is calling her, she wishes He’d speak louder. Or send her a sign. Sister Immaculata told her, “This too shall pass.” But it hasn’t. Once again she can’t sleep, no matter how hard she tries to ignore her nagging heart.
Sister Jude slips on a robe and tiptoes downstairs to the chilly refectory kitchen. She turns on the burner under the kettle and stands there, mesmerized by the necklace of blue flames, their bright warmth, the odor redolent of those mornings when—her father long gone to work at the docks—she’d take tea to her mother, frail and shrinking under the chenille bedspread. No one to check her homework, braid her hair. She’d walk the six blocks to Connie’s house, where Rose or Brenda or Angela would fuss over her, feed her scrambled eggs, tuck in her blouse.
She lifts the kettle before it whistles, fills a mug, stirs in Sanka, and carries it upstairs. Maybe she’s had her signs. Maybe helping Tomás is simply a lesson in charity. And her father’s bequest a test of her faith. Maybe she’s not meant to do anything, other than pray.
Setting the coffee on the nightstand, she retrieves his letter. She believes her father loved her in his own cramped way, but his gift feels like a reproach. How did he put it?
I’ve left my estate (such a grand word!) and such as it is to Raymond. I couldn’t take the chance that naming you in my will would automatically give those crows a right to it. Your uncle (another foolish papist) knows it’s meant for you and would cut off his thumbs sooner than touch a penny of it.
It’s you I’m after protecting, don’t be mad at your Da. The money is yours. Throw it off Carnasie Pier if that’s what you want, but you’re not to give it them.
When the carillon peals for Vigils, she puts the letter away and then slips the black tunic over her head. Covering her head with the coif, she tucks the front flaps (“like a bib, only hidden,” Sister Immaculata instructed that first time) inside her tunic. She places the white vinyl band like a crown over the coif. The trick to attaching the black veil, she’s discovered, is a combination of safety and straight pins. Now for the stiff discipline of the starched wimple, which encases the sides of her face and her chin, circles her neck, and lies over her heart like a white shield. She reaches back to fasten it, forced then to hold her head high and keep it there. After looping her rosary under her belt, she kisses the worn silver crucifix and pins it over her heart.
She joins her Sisters crossing the courtyard, their serge habits sibilant, their clacking beads a counterpoint, her spirit rising with their first words—a prayer. The day breaks in a chalky mist so still that the echoes of the monastery bells linger in the foothills and the cross at the crest of the drive seems suspended in mid-air.
Mother Superior stands at the lectern as they file into the modest chapel, the air silky with incense and candlelight. They take their places by seniority, Sister Immaculata first. Kneeling beside Sister Catherine John in the last pew, Jude begs God to have mercy on her father’s soul and to show her the way back to contentment. When she finally looks up, she meets Mother Superior’s level gaze.
After chapel, Jude takes her place next to Immaculata in the dining room. When Mother Superior finishes saying grace, Jude drizzles maple syrup on her pancakes and bites into a soggy wedge, savoring the skitter and hum of female voices, the crowded table, the food, plain but delicious because of their company, the youngest part of her thinking: Good. Solid. Mine.
As soon as they’ve eaten, they scatter to their assigned chores. Hers begin with clearing up and washing the dishes, which she dispatches with alacrity. They expect twenty-six guests this weekend. It’s going to be a hectic day.
She towels out a porthole on the refectory window. Across the courtyard, the midday sun bisects the chapel. The monastery wing is still in shadow, its mortared stone sugarcoated with frost. Not a soul is in sight, save for a lone figure making its way toward the convent. It happens occasionally—a car breaks down on the back road, or perhaps it’s an early arrival for the retreat. She hangs up her apron, rolls down her sleeves, adjusts her habit, and opens the back door.
“Tomás, what are you doing here? It’s not allowed.” She signals to the boy to be quiet and motions him inside. “How on earth did you get here?” she whispers.
He sticks out a bony thumb. She warms it between her hands. “Has something happened to your mother?”
He shakes his head. “She sent me. The food place, it closed.”
“The grocery store?”
“The free place.”
“Oh, no! When? Never mind. Let me think.” She throws open the cupboards. Nearly everything is allotted for the resident nuns or the retreatants. She grabs a box of graham crackers and glances at the clock. If she hurries, she can make it back in time. Barely. She snatches the car keys from their hook and tugs a coat from the bulky assortment by the back door. “Let’s go, Tomàs, I don’t have much time.”
Tucking her veil securely behind her head, she double-checks the rearview mirror, then eases the station wagon down the steep hill, pausing at the entrance marked by the weathered sign before pulling onto the county road. She turns up the heater and drives faster than she should, past clumps of empty summer cabins, a scattering of year-round houses in various states of disrepair, a trailer park or two. The bleak homesteads are usually obscured by the Catskills’ glorious seasonal palettes, but in winter their splintered bones are a plain and sorry sight.
“Are you warm yet?” She hands him the crackers. “Where’s your scarf, your gloves?”
He’s rubbing his hands together, but he refuses to wear anything more than the coat she gave him. She shakes her head. Maybe it’s boys. At least he has all the clothes he needs now, whether he wears them or not. The first time she saw Tomás—his long hair wild with cowlicks, his ankles bare—he was combing through trash cans along the street in the little town not twenty miles from here. Not in the Bronx or Appalachia but close enough for him to hear, however faintly, the monastery bells. It still gives her the chills.
“Any word from your father?”
He nods. “He found work in Saint Augustine.”
At the A&P she parks between a car missing its front bumper and a pea-soup-green VW bus with paisley-curtained windows. “Wait here. I won’t be long.” She leaves the heater running full blast and sprints to hold the door open for an elderly man clinging to a shopping cart for balance, his shoelaces untied, trousers tight around his waist, baggy everyplace else.
“Thank you, Sister, God bless you,” he says, as if she’s performed an act beyond common courtesy. Is kindness such a rare commodity? Or is it the veil? She’s never sure.
In record time she picks up the boy’s favorites—franks and beans, raisin bread, Ovaltine. Then she adds butter and eggs, some ground beef. That should tide them over until she can figure something out. Jude hesitates before getting back in the car, grinning at the sight of him drumming a backbeat and singing along to the music cranked up on the radio. It’s not until the rousing chorus of na-na-na-nas that she recognizes her name and her laughter becomes a frozen lump in her throat.
Ten minutes later she pulls up in front of the Liberty Launderette. Its plate-glass window reflects the faded brick façade of an abandoned building where some hippies set up a makeshift way station, selling preserves and beaded jewelry and weavings from their commune, distributing mysteriously acquired foodstuffs from USDA handouts to vagrants and migrants and burnouts. Now the front door is boarded up. “When did they leave?” she asks.
He shrugs. “A few days ago, after they gave everything away. Here, my mother says to take this.” He hands her a neatly folded five-dollar bill.
“Tell her no. Gracias, but no.” She smiles at him and tucks the money into one of the grocery bags. “I’ll see you soon, okay? We’ll figure something out.”
She waits until he disappears into the narrow doorway between the launderette and the drugstore window, clotted with dusty advertisements, before she pulls away. God only knows how many more there are like him, living God knows where, invisible as seraphim.
At least it’s nice and warm in the apartment above the dryers. But now what? Without social security numbers, they depend on seasonal work, money from relatives, the erstwhile hippies, and her. And if the convent washer hadn’t gone kaput, their paths would never have crossed. How do people manage? In the city soup kitchens serve daily meals, but here the little villages are too scattered for people to travel to a central location every day. It’s prohibitive anyway, subject to all kinds of regulations, to say nothing of the cost of equipment and labor. The hippies had the right idea, even if they did steal from Peter to pay…
That’s it. Her father didn’t say she couldn’t give to the poor.
She turns the heater off and the radio on. When it hammers out the staccato beat of Walk On By she sings along, belting it out the way she and Connie used to, clutching their hairbrushes as mikes. She tips her head back to shout “Foolish pride!” and nearly hits the deer bounding into the road. Braking hard, she fishtails on an icy patch, sending her pulse rocketing. Don’t brake on ice. Steer slowly. Use the gas to pull out of a skid. Danny Farrell taught her, making her practice on the icy lip along the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The deer pricks up her ears and bolts into the woods. Jude relaxes her grip on the steering wheel and moves her foot to the gas pedal. Danny Farrell. She wonders if he’s still in Canada, as fierce and funny as he was at nineteen, and if he still thinks about her. By the time her heartbeat slows to normal, she’s at the monastery entrance, safely home. Beneath the weathered “Monastery of the Holy Name” sign is a new one:
Retreat this Weekend
The Changing Role of Women in the Church
Making her way through the parlor crowded with women, who—she knows by now—are from elegant Westchester houses, East Side highrises, duplexes in Queens, Jude avoids Sister Immaculata’s steady gaze and heads for the registration table, where Sister Catherine John is taking payments and handing out room assignments. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Where on earth have you been?” Catherine John’s chubby cheeks are flushed, but she looks more relieved than annoyed.
“Where do you want me, cash or carry?”
“Carry.” Catherine John nods toward a woman shivering in a stylish but flimsy wrap. “You can start with that one.”
The woman reminds Jude of Connie. A bit younger, early twenties maybe, and her features are coarser, but her hair is a similar shade of blonde, and she’s slight, the way Connie used to be before the children.
“Oh, no, thank you, Sister,” she says when Jude picks up her suitcase, even though Jude’s practically twice her size.
“I’m Sister Margaret Jude, and you are…?”
She escorts Kathleen to the guest wing and leads her down a dim corridor, their footsteps echoing against the vaulted ceiling. “This one’s yours,” she says, opening the tall, narrow door. “They’re called cells, but we don’t lock the doors. Honest.”
Kathleen doesn’t crack a smile. She drags her suitcase over the threshold and stands there, waiting for Jude to leave.
“Dinner’s at six in the main building. Vespers are at five-fifteen in the chapel across the courtyard. Come if you like.”
“Okay. Thanks. Sister.”
The door closes as soon as Jude turns her back. She shakes her head. After nearly a decade, she can’t get used to being regarded as some kind of wholesome freak. Just wait, though. She’ll bet anything that Kathleen will be the one to ask how they get along without sex.
To be fair, there was a time when Jude pitied these women, who had so little time for prayer and reflection. Over the years, though, she has come to envy them. Peace Corps volunteers back from El Salvador and Nicaragua, wives and mothers who marched in Selma and Washington, women starting their own businesses or daycare co-ops in the Bronx. “Weary pilgrims,” Sister Immaculata calls them. They call the nuns “The Lord’s Handmaidens.” Servants of God, troubled souls—from the inside looking out, Jude fails to see the difference.
At dinner, taking her place next to Immaculata, Jude whispers, “It couldn’t wait.”
“You’ll do them no favors if you neglect your obligations here.” For such a tiny person, Immaculata wields a commanding tone.
“But I didn’t, I—”
“You left without permission.”
“No one was around.” Jude tears a roll in half.
“Still, it did not go unnoticed.” Immaculata inclines her head toward Mother Superior, seated at the head of the table. “If it wasn’t for your father…” she sighs.
Jude feels the heat flooding her capillaries, reddening her skin. She shouldn’t have disclosed her father’s final wishes. He wouldn’t have approved. “If it wasn’t for my father, I couldn’t help Tomàs.”
Immaculata rests a tiny hand on Jude’s arm. “I’m not judging him, just saying that the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“He does. And if I’m not mistaken, I just found out what the money’s for.”
In the parlor that evening, as Immaculata works a jigsaw puzzle, Jude writes out all the details in a proposal to Mother Superior. “I can do this, Immaculata. And keep it afloat until I can get enough grants and donations to make it self-sustaining. It must be God’s will.”
Immaculata considers a puzzle piece, then finds its place. “It has been my experience that we seldom recognize God’s will if it differs from our own.”
“But it’s perfect. It will be open only one day a week to start. Of course, we’ll have to order the groceries and stock the shelves. And write the grants. And notify the⎯”
“We? You mean you.”
Jude flushes. “Everyone can help, there’s plenty to do⎯”
“That’s hardly the point. We’ve more than enough to do here. You’ll need Catherine John’s help at the very least⎯”
“I can handle it alone if I have to. I feel it’s what God’s calling me to do.”
Immaculata fixes her with a pointed stare. “Then you won’t be doing it alone, will you?”
Jude slides the proposal under Mother Superior’s door before retiring to her room. Preparing for bed, Jude considers Immaculata’s words. She’s right, of course. And as brusque and exacting as she can be sometimes, she has always steered Jude in the right direction. It was Immaculata who, a few weeks after Jude’s father’s funeral last spring, insisted on their being chauffeured to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, where she surprised Jude by treating her to a ride in a biplane. How Jude loved the thrill of flying in the open cockpit!—her veil flapping beneath the old-fashioned leather helmet, the Hudson Valley a green furze scrolling beneath her, pulling her focus back to the earth.
For the first time in months, Jude sleeps through the night, waking the next morning with her heart plump with hope and her favorite prayer, the last one her mother taught her, on her lips:
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven.
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of Fire…
“I’m giving you St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” her mother said, “to keep you safe. To keep you strong.”
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me…
When she was little, she imagined the Breastplate as an invisible coat of armor and couldn’t understand why her mother gave it away, didn’t keep it to protect herself. With a child’s faith, she took it as a sign of her mother’s great love, the ultimate sacrifice. Even now that she knows better, it still conjures up her mother’s voice and comforts her.
Jude matches her stride to Mother Superior’s on their way through the courtyard after Vigils. “Have you read it?”
“It bears discussion. Come to my study after Vespers, Jude. We’ll talk then.”
It satisfies her, this pacing of prayer: Vigils, Lauds, Noon, Vespers, Compline. Today Jude uses each to ask God’s blessing on Loaves & Fishes, as she’s already christened the food bank.
The visiting women are indeed retreating, hour by hour, from the lives they left—she can see it in their faces, in their gait. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for her. No way to slip into secular life for an occasional weekend. Sometimes she wonders how she would fare in Connie’s shoes. In her last letter, Connie mentioned that Vince was working long hours at Field’s and had a second call-back at Circle in the Square; Anna’s grades were excellent, and she was a big help with Ceci (thank God, this pregnancy is the worst).
Jude wrote back, including a note for Anna and a brochure with the upcoming schedule for retreats. She circled the next one, January 19th: Reflection and Renewal for the New Year.
At Vespers, the chapel is full, the monastery no longer forbidding and the nuns less exotic. The retreatants are welcome to join them in chapel. Tonight some do, Kathleen among them. She waves to Jude from across the aisle.
As soon as they’re done, Jude hurries back and enters the study on Mother Superior’s sturdy heels.
Mother sits behind her desk and motions Jude to the opposite chair. “Please.”
Since Mother’s longish nose and narrow mouth give her a perpetually dour appearance, Jude can’t read her mood. The older woman has a well-earned reputation for slow but fair deliberations. In light of the latitude granted by the second Vatican Council, she’s agreed to authorize whatever changes in habit the convent decides upon. But it’s been eight long years since Vatican II, and the Sisters of the Holy Name are still arguing about what to wear.
“What you propose is a noble enterprise, Jude, and a clever way to use your inheritance without violating either your vows or your father’s wishes.”
“Immaculata told you?”
“Only because she’s been worried about you.”
“Then you approve?”
“Of the project, not your involvement.”
“It will not affect my work, Mother, I promise—”
“It already has,” she says, not unkindly. “That is where you were yesterday, with that child?”
“But it was an emergency—”
“No doubt. And if you do this, there will be other emergencies.”
“So what are you saying? I may fund a food bank but not administer it?”
“Why must it be you?”
“It doesn’t have to be, not in the long run, but they need help now. Tomás and his family, and the old man with the baggy pants, and that little girl who reminds me of Anna…” Jude can’t help her tears or the catch in her voice.
Mother reaches into her pocket and hands her a handkerchief. “I know you’re passionate about this, Jude, but it is not our mission.”
“I can do both, I know I can.”
“That is not your decision.” Mother’s voice is soft and gentle. “What if each of us wanted to do something else? And believe me, we have all felt that way at some point.”
“But something must be done.”
“There are social services…”
“They don’t qualify. And even if they did, it’s still not enough.”
“I’m sorry, Jude. There will always be people in need; you can’t take care of everyone. We can pray for them, entrust them to God’s care. And hope for the best.”
“There’s always hope, Mother. It’s justice that’s scarce.”
Mother stands. “Come, let’s go to dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Get some rest, then.”
Jude presses the hankie to the fresh fall of her tears. She pauses in the doorway. “What if I can’t let this go?”
“Then you must choose whether or not you wish to remain here.”
“But you’re my family,” she whispers. “This is my home.”
“I do not say this lightly, Sister, but I see no other way.”
Later, after staring for hours at the wedge of moonlight on the ceiling above her bed, Jude gives up. She bundles up and goes outside. There’s nothing between the moon and the monastery but frozen sky. She follows the flagstones to the front entrance, nearly slipping on the icy path.
Circling behind the dormitory wing, she sees a light on in Kathleen’s room. Just as she predicted, Kathleen finally did ask how the nuns got along without sex. “Easier than you’d think,” Jude answered, as she always does. But she had wondered too, at eighteen, still close to the season of Danny Farrell, when promising never to lie skin to naked skin with a man—holding fast, being held—seemed an exquisite sacrifice.
“What about money?” Kathleen wanted to know. But the vow of poverty never fazed Jude. She’d watched her father divide his pay among tattered envelopes marked for “Hudson City Savings,” “ConEd,” “Bell Tel.” He’d rattle his loose change into the cloudy crystal vase that had been filled with flowers when her mother was well. Perhaps his scrimping was a way of denying them the comforts her mother had forfeited long ago. Or maybe it was the only way he knew how to care for a child.
No one ever asks about obedience. What it’s like to relinquish your judgment, surrender your will. If they did, she’d tell them it’s the hardest vow of all.
What happens if you placed your bet before the rules of the game changed?
After the cultural revolution of the tumultuous ’60s, women’s life choices were limitless compared to those women in the ’50s who took vows before the political, social, and institutional upheaval ushered in by the Vietnam War, Vatican II, and the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and the war on poverty. Visible Signs follows two such women, a disillusioned Catholic nun and her friend, a browbeaten wife and mother. Together they navigate the shifting roles of women in the church, work, and marriage.
In the declining economy of the 1970s, Sister Jude finds herself unable to reconcile her monastic existence in upstate New York with the plight of the community’s poor. She thinks she understands faith, until she is forced to leave the convent to follow her conscience. Barely has she shed her habit before her friend Connie, fleeing her abusive husband, shows up at her doorstep, eight months pregnant with two children in tow.
Jude practices charity but comes to loathe Vincent, Connie’s volatile husband—a talented aspiring actor—as she battles him for the welfare of his wife and children. Her mission to feed the hungry and free Connie from her weakness for Vincent is complicated by her own attraction to Matt, a passionate but burned-out activist, back from the inner city to work on his family’s farm.
Tormented by Vincent’s treachery and Matt’s ultimatum, Jude learns how little she understands the vagaries of the heart, and discovers that her fierce faith and determination may not be enough to save Connie from her husband, the children from danger, or herself from a fall from grace.
Grace Marcus lives in North Carolina, where she is finishing a new novel and working on a collection of short stories. She holds a Master’s in Theatre Arts from Montclair University. A Brooklyn native, she has resided on both coasts. Her work has been published in Philadelphia Stories, The Bucks County Writer Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, TheWritersEye, and Women on Writing. Her short story “Grove of the Patriarchs” will appear in the March issue of Me First Magazine. Visible Signs was a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Writing Competition.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019