By M. C. Herrington
Carya watched Sister Anne climb the hill to the dormitory, stopping to scan the lake as she passed. It was as smooth and still as a lead pot, and whatever it had witnessed since the Sisters of Providence settled there nearly three centuries before was locked inside.
The sisters had been running the program for victims of domestic abuse for a decade now. They taught women like Carya to develop small business plans, provided them with start-up funds to purchase inventory, and gave them a shop of their own in the village of St. Elizabeth, rent-free for the first six months. The County Sheriff ensured that they were allowed to participate by making their partner’s parole or probation contingent upon it. And Sister Anne made a point of visiting the shopkeepers regularly, looking for signs—long sleeves when it was too hot for them, brimmed hats or sunglasses worn indoors, scarves tucked into already buttoned-up collars. Sometimes Carya suspected that the three-billion-dollar segment of the women’s accessory industry had been purposely designed to cover up the evidence of domestic violence.
Carya was the village’s flower vendor. As part of a deal she’d made with the sheriff—who’d found her naked in a pool of her own urine because her husband had tied her to the bed with ratchet straps and left on a three-day bender– she was “allowed” to have her own shop in St. Elizabeth. The other vendors, she knew, had similar horror stories. Cee-cee, who sold homemade ice cream next door, was a former weightlifter who would have been one of the few African American women on the 2016 Rio team if her jealous manager-husband hadn’t slammed out of the gym just as she snatched 150kg up over her head, leaving her to break four ribs and puncture both lungs. Every time Carya saw Sherry, who ran the coffee shop, she was scratching her neck, a reminder that her husband had once tried to strangle her with the chain of the silver cross she no longer wore. Molly sold honey in squeezable bottles that looked like bears, honeycomb in old Mason jars, and beeswax candles. Some days she came to work with dried wax in her cropped hair, as if someone had forced her head toward the scalding vat on purpose. And then there was Camille, who sold totems, beautiful birds and animals she carved from the oaks that toppled over in St. Elizabeth. At least once a week, Camille cut herself and had to be taken to the infirmary. Carya had noticed that her injuries were never on her fingers or palms but on her inner arms and thighs. Perhaps it was only practice, she thought, and one day, Camille would cut the person who deserved it.
Carya sold bouquets in recycled containers, coreopsis and zinnias in Campbell Soup cans, lavender and sage in green tea tins. To tide her over through the cold seasons, she also made herbal teas, lavender sachets and bath salts, and wreaths adorned with dried flowers and herbs. She realized she wasn’t what anyone in St. Elizabeth would call a people person. She didn’t wander over to Sherry’s for a cup of coffee. She didn’t hang around outside Molly’s to smoke a Salem. But when Camille’s wife called Camille a fucking whore and tried to kick her shop door in, Carya went after her with a pair of flower shears.
“I may have to put up with this kind of shit at home,” she’d said, backing her friend’s attacker against the wall. “But I won’t put up with it here.”
* * *
The rule was that the shopkeepers had to leave St. Elizabeth no later than dusk, so that the sisters could refocus their energies on God rather than on entrepreneurship. No one had noticed that at least once a month, Carya’s husband, Frank, “forgot” to pick her up, his passive-aggressive response to having his fists figuratively tied behind his back; or that Carya only pretended to mind. Usually, he’d text her in an hour or two, and she’d meet him at the north gate, locked by then but accessible via a wooden stile. In the meantime, she’d turn off the lights and sit in the dark, her chair pushed to one side of the window so she could see out without being seen.
Not that there was much to see—a parking lot to the north of the shops, a line of oaks to the south that blocked her view of the lake and of the sisters’ dormitory on the other side. Sometimes a deer or a raccoon wandered past, but mostly, Carya simply sat and breathed and tried to be present, as Sister Anne was trying to teach: “If you stop dwelling on what happened in the past and stop worrying about what might happen in the future, you’ll discover that right now is a fine place to be.”
Sometimes it was, Carya admitted. But it all depended, right?
Carya had worked in St. Elizabeth long enough to know its history. It was established in 1740, when the French still claimed this part of the country. Thirty sisters and thirty crewmen set sail from Saint Vielle, but their ship, the Triton, foundered off the coast. Only the women survived. Carya had been told that they made the rest of the inland journey by foot, arriving just in time to build winter quarters, a dozen huts made from fractured limestone blocks they hoisted one atop the other. They also built a stone grotto, adorning the crevices with shells they collected on the beach where they first landed. It was here they hung the statue of the Blessed Virgin, much of her paint and plaster dissolved by seawater. At her feet once lay a replica of the wrecked Triton, made from a scrap of its hull and long since decayed. Sister Anne had told Carya that the ship included tiny replicas of the drowned crew. Perhaps this was a rendering of vanitas, she’d said, and then explained: A reminder of the nearness of death. Perhaps it was a manifest, a statement of the order’s will to survive. In either case, they did survive, first by cultivating benefactors among the wealthy women of the Vincennes (now Indiana) diocese, whose largesse helped them build the mother house they still used as a community center. There also were rumors that the grand cathedral was financed—inadvertently—by the women of Louis XVI’s court, who transported looted gold and silver to the sisters for safekeeping and were never able to reclaim it. With a substantial endowment in place, the women turned their attention outward. They fed and sheltered Kickapoo and Piankashaw women and children who were too ill to move west with their tribes. They took in pregnant slaves whose mistresses did not wish to be reminded of their husbands’ infidelities. In short, they cared for women no one else cared for. It had always been a booming business, Sister Anne said.
Carya wasn’t religious, but she was curious about the sisters. Two weeks ago when her husband failed to pick her up by the curfew, she left the shop and crept up to the cathedral. She expected to see priests on the dais, but there were none. Instead, Sister Anne was leading what she assumed was communion, attended by a half dozen of the sisters. Carya had never seen them in their habits—in the village, they wore twill slacks and white blouses under vests or cardigans. Here they were wearing what appeared to be common black habits, except that the cloth was woven with fine silver threads that made it shimmer, and because the garments flowed out from the waist, they moved like ocean waves on a dark night. The effect was magnified by their full-dress veils, which were long and white and intricately pleated. Carya thought they looked like the gills of gigantic fish.
That evening, she’d been so focused on the sisters she hadn’t realized she wasn’t alone. When she heard the leaf litter crunch, she turned. It was dusk by then, and Carya couldn’t trust her eyes. But the woman who slipped into the woods appeared to be clothed in nothing but her own long, pale hair. The skin beneath it was too white to be real.
Another victim, she’d assumed, who’d come to check out the sisters before she transferred her title of ownership from her abuser to them.
When someone tapped her on the shoulder, she spun around, ready to fight back. “Happy Friday,” Camille said.
She was being ironical: None of the women were ever happy when the weekend rolled around. Carya could see the newest strip of white gauze on Camille’s small wrist. Likely she was still on church grounds because she’d just left the infirmary.
“Walk me to my car? I swear there’s something out there,” she said, gesturing toward the lake. “I’ve never seen anything, but I can feel trouble coming from a long way away.”
* * *
Tonight, Frank was later than usual. Carya didn’t realize she’d fallen asleep until the thermos slipped out of her hands and smacked the stone floor. It was dark, though she could see the moon easing up out of the oaks like the glistening crown of a baby’s head. She felt rather than heard the shriek, which echoed off the leaded window glass and repeated twice. She was out the back door before she had time to think, her hand on the scabbard that held her cutting shears.
It was Sister Landis, the young woman who was supposed to oversee the community garden but who spent most of her time caring for the animals that robbed it. She was knee deep in the lake, blood dripping off her white blouse and into water that roiled around her ankles, as if some voracious animal were feeding there.
Carya said her name softly before reaching out to tug at her elbow. “Step back. Slowly.” The woman did as she was told. Carya moved in front of her on the muddy bank, holding the shears out like a dagger.
The water stilled. The moon crested the trees. The corpse—a fawn, its neck broken, its throat ripped out—slid forward, as if whatever had dined on it had just pushed back from the table. Carya saw only what looked like a white wrist breaking the surface of the lake, and three meters behind it, a whiter heel. Not an animal, but the white-skinned being she’d seen before.
She helped Sister Landis up the hillside and into her shop, where she wrapped her in a shawl and sat her down in front of the fireplace. Then she turned on the lights, knowing that would be enough to send Sister Anne running.
* * *
Violence was an ordinary horror. At least that’s how Carya rationalized her detachment from what she’d seen at the lake. Sister Anne assumed she was in shock, and once she escorted Sister Landis to the infirmary, she returned to the flower shop to put the shawl around Carya’s shoulders and hand her a new thermos of tea.
“How much did you see?” she asked.
Carya looked up. “Enough to understand why you don’t want any of us hanging around after dark.”
Anne kicked the fireplace logs with the heel of her shoe. “I can’t think of an ethical way to convince you that you didn’t see what you think you saw—”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Carya cut in.
“So I’m going to tell you the truth, and hope you’ll find a way to—”
Carya shook her head. “Keep it to myself?”
“Forgive me.” The sister touched her hand gently and sat down across from her, the fire illuminating the right side of her face. “You know the story about how our order came to be here? The voyage from France, the shipwreck?”
“But you don’t know what caused the wreck.” She sighed. “From Mother Thalia’s logbook, we know that halfway through the journey, one of the sisters disappeared. And then a second and a third. The captain suggested they’d thrown themselves overboard rather than face the hardships of life on the frontier. But Mother Thalia knew better. She ordered the rest of the sisters to barricade themselves in their cabins while she searched the ship. Two members of the crew took pity on her and volunteered to help. They overpowered the men who’d been keeping two of the girls in the hold, stripped and shackled spread-eagled so they could not defend themselves against their rapists. Both died of hypothermia the same night. They found the third girl in the captain’s quarters too late to even try to save her: She’d slit her wrists when he left to attend to his other duties. She had the foresight to bleed on his formal jacket, though, her way of reminding him of his sin.”
While Carya clenched the arms of her chair tightly enough to crush them, Sister Anne wiped her eyes with her index finger. “When the sisters left their cabins the next day, they found the ship deserted and the lifeboats intact. Not even their male benefactors had survived. The only sign that there had been a struggle was the jacket covered with blood, which they later learned came from one of their own. By that afternoon, the wind shifted, and some of the sailors’ corpses were blown back to the ship, their skulls knocking against the wood each time a wave broke. One by one the bodies tipped over and sank, which is when the sisters realized that their lower limbs had been… removed.
“It was a horrible night for the women—alone, adrift, unsure if whatever had killed the crew might still be lurking on the ship. It was providence that Sister Durant found the courage to take charge, barricading the women and their provisions on the tween deck while she searched every inch of the ship. Once she was sure they were safe, she redirected their energy to prayer. It was providence that they continued on course, and providence that they hit a snag and were discovered by whalers.
“And perhaps,” she said, her voice fainter now. “It was providence that they eventually discovered Mother Thalia’s body, which they had unknowingly towed behind them for two weeks, caught in the rigging that trailed behind the listing mizzenmast and protected it from predation.”
The shop was warm enough by then that Carya pushed the shawl off her shoulders, but Sister Anne shivered and put another log on the fire. “Sister Durant wrote to the Superior General that the body was inviolate and unblemished, pure white but with a silvery sheen imparted by the ocean that embraced it; she believed Mother Thalia’s body remained intact as proof God had marked her as a saint. Later, she’d realize she’d been mistaken. But within a few years, the congregation became self-sustaining, and it severed all ties with the French order once the Revolution began. So the matter of Mother Thalia’s canonization was forgotten. In time, Thalia herself was forgotten, except by Sister Durant and the confidante who watched over the crypt where she’d been laid to rest.”
Carya glanced at her cellphone to see if her husband had texted. He was four hours late now, a record even for him. Maybe he thought his absence was punishment. Maybe he was lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Both possibilities were a blessing, she thought, rubbing the earlobe he’d split when he yanked out her earring two weeks before. No matter what was out there, Carya believed she was safer in St. Elizabeth than at home.
“The body would go missing,” Sister Anne was saying. “First there would be signs of desiccation, skin stretched tautly over bone, all lustrousness gone. And then the body would disappear between dusk and dawn. A novitiate would claim she’d seen something near the lake, a sirène or a moon spectre, and then the body would be returned to the crypt, plump and perfect. When the cycle began again, Durant and her confidante hid themselves in the hermitage so they could see it for themselves: Mother Thalia slipping into the lake like a long white shadow, diving down to the bottom where there were catfish as big as horses, draining their blood until they were as white as she was.”
Carya knew this was the juncture of Thalia’s story and her own. “What do you feed her now?” she asked. “The fish must have run out long ago.”
“Injured and motherless animals of a certain size.” Sister Anne cleared her throat. “It’s important to quench her thirst with one feeding.”
Carya understood. “Which didn’t happen the last time. That’s why she came after the fawn Sister Landis was caring for.”
Anne didn’t have to answer—Carya could read her mea culpa look. “So does everyone in the order know?”
Sister Anne shook her head. “Only the Mother General and whomever she chooses as a confidante. Usually a sister, like me. And someone trustworthy from outside the order who’s strong enough to do the heavy lifting. Live animals. Dead ones. Sometimes Mother Thalia herself if she has to be moved when the temperature drops and she goes into torpor.”
“That’s a lot of witnesses over three centuries,” Carya pointed out.
“True. But the Mother Generals never stay for more than ten years, and a secret like this one seems to lose its hold on them once they’re far away. We’ve been very careful. We also have strict rules about being out after dark, as you know. I believe this is the first time they’ve been violated at such an inopportune time.”
Carya laced her fingers and looked up, but she was thinking, not praying. The dead fawn couldn’t have weighed forty pounds. “She isn’t finished feeding yet, is she?”
Anne could barely squeak out the word. “No. But once she is, she’ll go back to waiting. We’ll have a steady supply again soon, fresh roadkill now that fall is here.”
The wheels were turning in Carya’s head. “What do you think happened on the ship?”
“I think she called on the wrath of God, and when he didn’t answer, someone else did. Someone who empowered her to avenge her sisters’ deaths and then punished her for doing so.”
“They were rapists, Sister. Why wouldn’t God want to punish them himself?”
“I can’t answer that question– this is something out of Greek mythology, Carya, not Christian teaching. But I refuse to believe our savior would punish Mother Thalia for doing something only a man would call a sin.”
Carya held the sister’s gaze long enough to be certain she meant what she’d said. “Then answer this one. If you feed her something four times bigger than normal, will she stay put for two months instead of two weeks?”
Sister Anne stopped pacing. “What did you have in mind?”
Carya’s phone buzzed. She held it up so the Sister could read her husband’s text.
M. C. Herrington is Master Naturalist at The Perry Farm, which is so close to the convent described in “Providence” that she never goes out alone after dark. Her work recently has been published in 34 Orchard, Boulevard, Chautauqua, Mystery Tribune, and The Penn Review. Her poem “Fragile Animals” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.