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Sunday 5 April 2020

Ten Minute Tales : The Rule by Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

Ten Minute Tales
For your entertainment
a different Ten Minute Tale* every day
(except Friday when we have Novel Conversations)

The Rule
Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

“A processions of fireflies,” Sister Clothilde mouthed to herself, as she walked with the other nuns, tapers in hand, along the path to the chapel.  At Vespers, two weeks into Advent, it had been dark for nearly an hour. Snowflakes kept making the candles wink, and Clothilde looked forward to skating on the pond outside the refectory.
From the chapel, she could hear the congregation singing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,/ Who ransomed captive Israel.”  This evening, deeper voices joined the sound of the postulants’ choir.  The construction crew that had rebuilt the chapel after the tornado joined the sisters.  Some had brought their wives and children.
Who mourns in lonely exile here,/ until the Son of God appear…,”  Clothilde sang. The path was getting slippery. She’d remember to put sand down before evening prayers.  Perhaps they should have enclosed the space between the convent and the chapel.  But Sister Francesca’s argument had prevailed.
“Exposed, exposed to the elements,” Francesca had insisted.  “After all, we struggle to get to God.” 
Sister Celestine brushed snowflakes off her shoulders. Clothilde unlatched the iron lock, and slid open the door of the converted barn.  Wood shavings that had escaped the vacuum’s pull flurried in a swirl, announcing the sisters’ arrival.  The congregants stood.  Sawdust footprints followed Sister Francesca.  “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel/ shall come to you, O Israel!”
The chapel was warm.  Swaths of pine branches encouraged Clothilde to breathe deep breaths, and the glass of the clerestory windows reflected the wavy light of the tall altar candles.  The sisters had voted not to varnish the benches.  Only the cross that had taken six men to lift shone above the altar. The sisters bowed before it, then filed to their seats facing the congregation.
How different the men looked this evening--clean-shaven, minus cigars and tape-measures, hammers and hard hats.  Clothilde remembered their crew chief, Sal Giovanni, snapping at them the first day he saw her.
“Hats off, you got a nun coming.”
The men removed their baseball caps, hard hats, bandannas.  Some looked at the ground, a few motioned, “S’ter.”  Mr. Giovanni extended his hand.
“Vanni,” he said, “Call me Vanni.  Everybody does, Sister Clothilde.”
She laid a lunch on the picnic table.  Mr. Giovanni watched.  Clothilde felt his eyes.
“You make this, Sister?” Mr. Giovanni asked, pointing at the bread and honey.
She nodded.
“I didn’t know you sisters cooked,” he said.  “My wife thought you prayed all day, told me your group has been praying since the Crusades.”
Clothilde smiled.  “Your wife is right, Mr. Giovanni.  We do pray all day.  We combine our physical labor with prayer.  One gives meaning to the other.  We believe the physical world is a manifestation of God.  We labor to give Him glory.”
“Nobody helps with the farm?”
“No,” said Clothilde, “we run the farm ourselves.”
“Live and learn,” said Mr. Giovanni.
Later, when she returned to clear, Mr. Giovanni piled the plates onto the tray. 
“You bake a nice bread, Sister,” he said.  “Delicious, with the raisins.  Bridget makes good bread, too, banana, mostly.  Wait’ll I tell her.  Thanks, again, Sister.  Pray for us, okay?  Bridget isn’t feeling too well. Please say a prayer for my wife and my boys.”
“Good night, Mr. Giovanni.  I will.”
Sister Clothilde felt the snowflakes on her face evaporate in the chapel’s warmth.  That is prayer, she thought.  Letting go of earthly senses.  Disappearing into God.  But where was Bridget?  Mr. Giovanni had talked to her about his wife for a season, and now Clothilde scanned the congregation to find her.  
Three months ago.  The first days, Indian Summer.  The sisters worked outdoors then, in overalls, sleeves pinned up, veils twisted into buns fastened onto the backs of their heads.  Clothilde filled baskets with apples and pears.  She and Sister Francesca divided them to give to the men.  Mr. Giovanni grinned. 
“Bridget will like this, Sister.  She grew up on an orchard.  Her folks still operate it.  Has pictures of our boys in their baby carriages surrounded by pumpkins and crab apples.  Let me help you carry the bushels to the barn.”
Mr. Giovanni lifted two bushels as if they were weightless.  Clothilde led him to the barn.  Inside, he wiped his forehead with a bandanna. 
“Nice and cool in here,” he said.  “Never expected to get to know nuns, Sister Clothilde.  Let alone nuns in overalls.”
Clothilde remembered blushing.  She and Mr. Giovanni stacked the bushels by the tractor, patted the cows, then sat on some hay bales to rest.  Cosmina, the barn cat, purred as she rubbed against Clothilde’s leg.  Something rustled overhead in the eaves.  Off in the distance, an electric saw buzzed.  Inside, the barn smelled of life. 
Clothilde wondered if Bridget wore overalls, and flushed again.  Mr. Giovanni had looked at her neck.  She tried to focus on the liturgy.  Let go of earthly senses.  Dissolve.  Pray.      
The men worked Monday through Friday, early October through the first week of December.  After morning prayers and before breakfast, Clothilde heard their trucks rumbling up the mountain.  By the fourth day, she found herself waiting.
Mr. Giovanni always had news for her at lunchtime.  His boys were doing well.  Roc had mastered the tricycle and Flynn liked kindergarten.  Bridget was making afghans for Christmas and had already completed two.
“What are your favorite colors, Sister?  Bridget wants to know.  She said to thank you for the pie, too.  It was delicious, Sister.  Ever think of selling them?” Mr. Giovanni asked. 
Clothilde smiled.  “Blue,” she told him, “blue like open sky.”
Clothilde looked up at the chapel ceiling.  Blue, too, between the beams.  Robins’ eggs.  The chapel her nest.
“Blessed Mother, help us in our need,” proclaimed Father Joachim.
“We fly to you, O Virgin of virgins,” the sisters responded.
By Halloween, they had established a routine.  Clothilde brought out the food, the men scattered about the property, sitting quietly, some even napping, for one half hour.  Mr. Giovanni walked over to the pond, smoked a cigar, and stood alone.  Then, as soon as Clothilde returned to clear, he was at the picnic table again. 
Just this Monday, Mr. Giovanni had surprised her with pastries.
“Went to visit my mother, Sister, you know, in Boston, Little Italy.  Near Paul Revere’s house.  My kids think Revere was Italian.  Go figure.  Anyway, you’re always baking for us.  Try these cannoli.  See what you think.”
Clothilde took the box, started toward the kitchen.
“Thanks, Mr. Giovanni, I’m sure the sisters will enjoy these.”
“Here, try one now.  I want to know if you like them.” 
Vanni took the box from her hands, opened it, broke open one of the cannoli, and lifted half of it to her mouth. 
Clothilde flushed.  She bit into the pastry.  The ricotta was soft and sugary.  Bits of bitter chocolate surprised her.  She felt powdered sugar on her nose.
“What do you think?”
“Delicious, Mr. Giovanni.  Thank you.”
“Here,” he said, brushing the sugar off her face with his bandanna.
Clothilde felt her eyes well up.  Her face burned. 
 This evening, incense filled the chapel.  Clothilde’s eyes watered.  Blinking, she found Mr. Giovanni.  His wife, Bridget, had covered her baldness with a flaming scarf.  Her cane was hooked over the pew.  Clothilde watched Bridget look up at the cross as her husband pointed at it and whispered to her.  Roc and Flynn nuzzled between their parents.  Bridget stroked Flynn’s arm.  The postulants sang, and Clothilde saw Mr. Giovanni brush his wife’s face where her hair should have strayed.
Clothilde remembered amber braids.  Every day, ribbons to choose from the basket above her bed.  Then, with ballet, a chignon.  In the Robing Room during her Reception Ceremony, her hair had dusted the wide-planked floor. 
“Clip and brush, clip and brush, clip and brush, clip and brush.”  Four sweeps of Mother Abbess’s hands.  November leaves.  Dad turning and closing the door behind him.  Mom weeping behind her ladies’-tea-hat veil.  By the French doors, sunshine and Mother Abbess calling, “Come.  Take the veil.  Isabella no more.  You are Sister Clothilde.”  Mom clutched Isabella’s hand for the last time.
“How can you choose that life?” her father had asked.  “Alone, no one to care for you, drying up in some convent! Listen to reason, Isabella.  You are a person, not a robot, a flesh and blood woman.  I know we believe in God and all that, but that life isn’t normal, not for you.”
Her mother caressed her husband’s arm and Isabella watched her father’s body relax.
Later, after dark, her mother sat on Isabella’s bed.  “Can you do without, Isabella?” she asked.  She stroked her daughter’s hair.  Now, beneath her veil, Clothilde felt her mother’s hands once more.  Smooth, certain.  Gone.  Would God ever touch her?  With her sisters, she extended her own hands in supplication.  “Lord, we beseech your grace; touch us with your unbounded love;  bring us into your embrace.”
 The congregation responded, “This we beseech you, O Lord!”
Clothilde recalled her many talks with Mother Abbess.  The ability to detach from the world and attach only to God, that was the challenge of religious life, Mother told her.  To extend a general love to all, but deny the urges for particular attachments.  The three months Isabella spent at the abbey before her entrance ceremony convinced her she should try.  She felt at peace, loved the surroundings, the routine of physical labor, the rest at evening, a place where everyone was only as unique and as ordinary as everyone else.
The postulants sang, “Amen.”  The congregation stood.  Mr. Giovanni helped Bridget up.  Roc was asleep on his father’s shoulder.
Touch, thought Clothilde, was the clearest difference.  Living by the Rule, not by the world.  Touch was replaced by rhythm—Matins, Lauds, Nones, Vespers, Compline.  Every day, standing at the bar, poised, listening for the Dance Master to begin the count again.  Now and waiting, now and again, now and.…  Stretching to- ward God, toes pointing, straining toward the impossible only position.  “‘I am the Lord of the Dance,’ said He.”
She had not been a virgin, first met Carl at CafĂ© Paradiso, where he offered her a seat at his window table.  He noticed the leotard. 
“You dance?” he asked. 
Isabella nodded.
“I watch the legs,” he told her.  “I like the legs.”
He waited outside the Conservatory eight consecutive days.  At last, she consented.  Fourteen years ago.  A flat in Cambridge, over the wood shop where he carved mantels.  French doors there, too, ceiling a wedding cake, wood fire in winter, petunias on the sill.  The past two mornings, Carl had waked her.  Why?  Why now, after so many years?
“Clothilde, you’re going crazy,” she said out loud.  She re-arranged her books, adjusted her black stockings, shined her shoes.
This morning, again.
“Carl?” she whispered.
She knelt to pray.  “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  Her muslin nightgown brushed her breasts.  Her scalp tingled.
When the shower nozzle broke, he had washed her hair at the sink.  Isabella was a swan gliding on moving water.  Her neck was wet with kissing.
The postulants finished singing.  The sisters approached the altar, bowing slightly to each other.  Each lit a candle before intoning the text that asked for God’s help throughout the night.
Sister Clothilde’s prayer book shook in her hands.  Carl had tucked a book under her pillow.  “…and the lovers,” it read, “set the clock/to effortless turning in time.”  She remembered rustling, her cry, then sleep.  Sister Clothilde bit her lip.
Mother Abbess had questioned her.
“How, Isabella, having experienced physical love, do you mean to give it up?  This is a serious question.  Our life is not for everyone.  You must consider this seriously.  I am not saying our life is not the right life for you, just asking you to consider seriously if you can remain faithful to our vows.  Can you forget Carl or the possibility of another man?”
Like the discipline of dance, she had told herself, physical love was the same.  One surrendered to the music, let oneself experience the other, as fully and as completely as possible.  Both breathtaking, but moments only. Then done, the music stopping.  Something was wanting, something more.  Something as big as God.
For Carl it was different.  She had hurt him.
“This is not just an affair, what makes you think I can simply let go of you?” he shouted.  “I’m not just some guy saying words to you.”
Sorry, she was sorry. 
“I’ll wait,” he told her.  “I’ll wait the three months.”
In the end, she forced herself to tell him in person, to see if she could do it. 
“I cannot forgive you,” he told her.  “I cannot be glad of your choice.”
Not until her mother sent her the clipping about his marriage two years later had she cried.
As she sat again, Clothilde ran her hands over her habit.  For skating, she had sewn hooks and eyes on the waist and hem, so she could lift her skirt to her knees.  From the refectory window, Sister Francesca said, she could see her spinning.  
“Bella,” Carl had called her.  “Bella, give me your hand.”
In his shop, white space and pine.  One gilt mirror, leaning against the far wall.  He traced outlines in pencil, round and round, until a shape.  One evening, her face, in ink, framed above the desk.  Curved and smooth, eyes staring straight out. 
The postulants sang, “Blessed are the meek.”
At first she had been, waiting for him, not wanting to want, but wanting.
“Bella,” he told her, “I believe you are a hungry girl.”  All the while tracing with their two hands. 
She had been hungry. Then she thought she was full.  But this morning, when her monthly blood dotted the white tiles crimson, she thought of their life together.  Every month a possibility, every month a choice.  How many months did she have left? 
Clothilde folded her hands.  The sisters stood, formed a half-circle before the tabernacle, bowed, and processed to the refectory to welcome their guests.  The postulants sang the Advent song: “Behold the Bridegroom awaits/ in the middle of the night.”  The guests followed, singing.
Tea, hot cider, coffee, champagne, candy for the children.  Everyone, it seemed, was laughing.  The square-dance began.  Mr. Kelly called.  His wife clapped hands from a chair, their baby only days away from birth.  Mr. Kwiatkowski’s three-year- old daughter spun round and round until she fell and reached for her father to swing her by his hands.  Bridget Giovanni smiled.
A fire blazed.  Sister Clothilde laid the table.  Sister Celestine had pressed the linen napkins into squares.  They were creased and straight.  Enough of them for everyone.
“Enough!” laughed Isabella.  Carl always remade the bed with hospital corners so, when they threw off the sheets again, a whoosh.  When she gasped in surprise at the start, he had asked her, “Bella, you did not know this before?”
Sister Clothilde watched the postulants arrange platters on the sideboard.  
She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Sister, I want to introduce you to my wife,” said Mr. Giovanni. 
Mr. Giovanni led her to the sofa by the bay window.  Bridget took Clothilde’s hands in hers.
“Vanni and I want to thank you, Sister.  He tells me you pray for us.”
Bridget’s eyes flashed.
“He talks about you constantly, Sister Clothilde.  If you weren’t a nun, I’d be jealous,” Bridget laughed.
“How are your treatments going?” Clothilde asked.
“They buy me time, Sister.  That’s what I count on, just some time so Roc and Flynn won’t forget me.”
“Dinner is served,” announced Mother Abbess.
Clothilde helped Bridget to a table.
As the buffet line formed, Sister Clothilde slipped outside to scatter sand on the paths.  It had stopped snowing, and the moon hung over the pond.  Clothilde could see the ice was smooth.  No one would miss her.  She shined the flashlight on the path to the storage shed where the sisters kept their skates.  The voices from the refectory grew fainter and fainter.  Quickly, she strode across the kitchen garden to the edge of the pond.  She laced her skates and arranged her skirt.  Pushing off the frozen ledge, she traced the outline of the pond.  Once around, gaining speed, around again.  Clothilde sped to the center.  Blades flashed.  She leapt and spun, as if on point.  Her veil blew like hair.
At the Conservatory, walls and walls of mirrors.  Dancers gazing at themselves.  For Isabella, the gaze unsatisfying. 
“Why?” Carl had asked, “why that particular life? Tell me why and I’ll try to understand.”
“Because it’s so hard,” she had told him.  But it hadn’t been until now.  For the first time in many years, Clothilde wondered what she looked like.
 Clothilde slipped back into the refectory as Mother Abbess rose to speak.  The postulants walked from table to table, distributing miniature replicas of the restored chapel to each family.  “With our thanks and our continued prayers,” read the inscription.  “The Benedictine Sisters at Lynford.”  Mother Abbess glowed.
“The Chapel of St. Benedict is the work of your hands and the answer to our prayers.  How were we to know that destruction by a force of nature would introduce us to you good men and, now, also to those you love?  You have become a part of our history, a way station on our journey to God.  Please know that you are always welcome here.  Come visit us when you can.  We await you with open arms and the hospitality of our founder, St. Benedict.  The other sisters and I hope you have enjoyed yourself this evening.  Go safely now, go with God.”
Roc and Flynn scampered over to Clothilde. 
“Sister, Daddy wants to know if you’ll take us skating?”
Clothilde looked to Mother Abbess, who nodded, smiling.
“She used to be a dancer,” said Sister Francesca.
“Really?” asked Vanni, turning to Mother Abbess.
She nodded.
“If it’s okay with you, he said, I’ll make a small fire so Bridget can watch us.”
“Mr. Giovanni, take as long as you like,” Mother said.  “Some ice skating is the least we can offer you. Sister Clothilde, let’s you and I get some blankets.”
By the time Bridget and Clothilde got to the pond, Vanni had set a blaze going near the stone bench.  Clothilde and Bridget wrapped themselves by the fire as Vanni and the boys raced from one end of the pond to the other.
“Sister, I have a request,” said Bridget.  “Vanni can’t admit I’ll be gone soon.  He thinks I don’t know, but I hear him in the night.  He doesn’t know what to do.  He trusts you, he likes you.  Please, keep in touch with him.  Can you do that?  Will you do that?”
Bridget wiped her eyes. 
“I know you pray for us, and I thank you.  But Vanni, he’s a man.  He needs more than prayers.  He needs a woman to be close to him.  Sister, I want him to find a good woman.  It’s harder for me to be generous about the boys.  ‘Flesh of my flesh,’ as my mother says.  But for Vanni, I can’t imagine the loneliness.”
“How are you so brave, Bridget?” asked Clothilde.
“It’s not bravery, Sister, it’s just the path God is making for me.  I’m sure you understand better than I do.  I feel my physical self disappearing.  The doctors are wonderful.  They control my pain.  Someday, I tell Vanni, I’ll be like air.  He gets angry when I say that, tells me he can’t touch air.”
“Mommy, look!” shout the boys, as they fly by, each holding one of Vanni’s hands.
“Wonderful!” Bridget answers, waving.
“Sister, will you show them how to spin?” she asked.
“Yes, Sister,” Vanni agreed, “show us how to spin.”
Clothilde laced her skates once more and pushed off.  She took a turn with each boy, folded their hands across their chests, “so you can twirl as fast as possible,” and, in a few minutes, the three of them were spinning like tops.
“How about Vanni, Sister?” Bridget asked.  “Vanni and his brother used to skate all the time.  He taught Vanni to ice dance with me.”
Mr. Giovanni offered Clothilde his hand, bowed, and, before she knew it, they were dancing.  His right arm circled her waist, drawing her close enough to see his breath.  Forgetting herself, Clothilde moved to Vanni’s rhythm as he led her in a spirited two-step around the pond.  Her heart pounded.  Blood rushed to her cheeks.  Hip to hip, they worked the ice together.  The boys clapped hands.  Bridget waved.
Only when the chapel bell announced evening prayer did Mother Abbess, Sister Francesca, and the boys load skates and presents into the trunk of the Giovanni car.  Mother made the sign of the cross on Bridget’s forehead and helped her into the front seat.  Clothilde tucked a blanket over the boys in the back.  Mr. Giovanni extended his hand to Sister Clothilde.
“Thanks for all the lunches,” he said.  “A dancer, huh?  Imagine, a nun a dancer.  Go figure.”
“Don’t forget, Sister,” called Bridget.
“I won’t,” Clothilde replied.
“Forget what?” asked Mr. Giovanni.
“You,” whispered Clothilde.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Thank you, Vanni,” said Sister Clothilde.
“Finally,” he said, “I’m leaving and you learn my name.  Go figure.”
Nine o’clock.  Quiet now, along the path to the chapel.  The sisters walk in unison.  Inside, Sister Clothilde prays for Mr. Giovanni, Bridget, Roc, and Flynn.  She imagines them lying close, touching, storing comfort for days ahead.  Alone and surrounded, she and the other sisters place themselves in the presence and power and mercy of God.  “We choose this life this day, days past, and tomorrow, again. Blessed be God,” each sister sings.
“Good night, my Sisters,” says Mother Abbess.
The sisters process to their cells.  One door closes at a time.
In her cell, Clothilde unfolds the blue afghan Bridget made and lays it on her cot.  She undresses quickly.  Removing her veil, she runs her fingers through her cropped hair.  She traces the outline of her lips, her breasts, feels Vanni’s arm around her waist.  She looks to the cross on the wall.  The longest night of the year is upon her.  Outside, winds buffet the clapboards.  Alone in her cell, Sister Clothilde trembles, then drops to her knees in the dark, waiting.

© Mary Sharnick


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  1. What a tender and beautifully written story!

  2. Oh wow, there is so much to tell in this story, so much going on. I wonder how it turns out in the end.

  3. Powerful, gripping, intriguing and heart-breaking - thank you!

  4. Posted on behalf of: I left a comment about my friend Mary Donnarumma Sharnick's fine story I
    quoted content I thought was beautiful. "Lovely: Her muslin nightgown
    brushed her breasts. Her scalp tingled.
    When the shower nozzle broke, he had washed her hair at the sink. Isabella
    was a swan gliding on moving water. Her neck was wet with kissing."

    Thomas M McDade

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone!


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