Sister Therese sat upright at the first peal of the convent bell, taking a deep, steadying breath and trying to attain the inner peace the bell was supposed to inspire. She had never quite managed, no matter how long she remained in the compound. It was one of the things that made her wonder, daily, why anyone would willingly choose this life.
Therese certainly hadn’t; she had only agreed to come as it was better than the alternative. She had been brought in at the age of nineteen, young by the standards of the convent, but the severity of her crimes was deemed sufficient to outweigh her age. She had arrived a young and spiteful new inmate, determined to give the sisters- both the Enlightened and the Convicted- as much hell as she could muster for the duration of her sentence. The strict discipline of the order deflated this idea somewhat, but a sparkle of mischief remained to this day, making most of her days as painful as they were exhausting.
It wasn’t the the harsh punishments that had done the most to break her spirit; it was the ritual of atonement. As the bell rang out each day, two selected sisters, one Enlightened and one Convicted, made their way to the tower. The experience in the tower was excruciating, designed, as she had been told, to instill in the sisters a sense of subservience and forgiveness.
The atonement “duty,” as she had come to think of it, was passed among the sisters, chosen each day by the Mother over breakfast. The woman roamed the rows of tables each morning, touching two sisters, a gentle tap to the shoulder of the selected Enlightened and a lingering palm pressed to the crown of the selected Convicted. Although the Enlightened generally managed to refrain from overt expressions of displeasure, neither selected sister appeared honoured at being chosen. Judging by the fidgeting of the selected Enlightened the next day, Therese had quickly summised that there was some additional part of the ritual undergone by the Enlightened after the Convicted had departed.
As she had come to expect, Sister Therese inwardly cursed as she felt the tap of the Mother that morning. Yet another sin to confess, she thought as she idly bit down on her tongue. Though the organ remained innocent of any wrongdoing, she had followed this private ritual every time she had been selected, as though the self-inflicted punishment would save her. She should know better by now; she would have to confess. She had avoided doing so her first few times, but as the Enlightened had talked to her the next day she’d been unable to lie convincingly, earning herself not on the punishment for the curse but the lie as well. She had quickly learned that a timely confession was better for her bottom in the long run, sore though it may be after atonement. It was a vicious cycle, she thought to herself. It seemed that those who earned punishment most frequently were also more frequently selected for Atonement, which, in her case, led inevitably to additional punishment
As she made her mind up to the confession of cursing and the ensuing pain of punishment, Sister Therese attempted to distract herself by glancing up and down her table at her fellow monochrome-clad diners. She found herself wondering yet again why the order insisted in segregation of the grey-robed Convicted and black-robed Enlightened at mealtimes. Although the meal was a silent affair, the Convicted nevertheless appeared more lively and zestful than their serene, reserved counterparts. Sister Therese imagined that intermixing would do a world of good for both groups, but such decisions were not hers to make.
As Sister Therese joined the parade of Convicted and Enlightened out to the garden after the meal, she mused anew on the motivations of the Enlightened to endure this life. No distinction was made in the assignment of daily labour for the two classes, other than perhaps the minor detail of garbing. The black robes were of decidedly higher quality than the coarse grey Convicted garments, though in the heat of the summer sun, Sister Therese would have preferred the lighter, albeit more irritating clothing. Except, perhaps, after Atonement, she thought with a shudder. Then again, after such treatment, any covering at all would be torture.
Even without a sore backside, the hot sun was torturous enough, and Sister Therese plunged into her work in an attempt to distract herself from such worldly concerns, as the sisters had told her to do when she first arrived. She found that it worked, at least somewhat. If nothing else, such dedication helped spare her from further punishment. It could be worse, she thought to herself, at least there was a stiff breeze; those assigned to the kitchens today must be even more uncomfortable.
In such a frame of mind, the pea of midday bell was a jarring. Sister Therese set aside her spade and gazed up at the tower, failing to banish from her mind the memories of cies emanating daily from the turret and squaring her shoulders in face of the ordeal ahead. Slowly, purposefully, she marched off to do her duty.
The climb was exhausting, but the thick stone walls provided a measure of shelter from the heat for which she was grateful. Pausing briefly before the final ladder, she took a moment to compose herself for what lay above.
As Sister Therese entered the turret, she found sister Mary cowering in the far corner, clutching her dusty grey robe around her as though the garment could offer some measure of protection. Gazing upon the selected Convicted, Sister Therese felt her heart break for the girl, knowing exactly how she felt from having been in the same position so many times herself. She wished to comfort the girl, but such breaches of ritual were strictly forbidden.
She faced the same choice I did, Sister Therese reminded herself, and besides as young as she may look, she must be older than I was when I arrived.
Sister Therese schooled her face into an impassive expression as she spoke the ritual script, but tried to suffuse the words with as much warmth of tone as she could.
“You have been summoned here for atonement. This will be difficult, for both of us, but it is necessary. Do you understand?”
The script provided no standard response for the Convicted, though rarely did they fail to provide an adequate segue into the rest of the ritual.
“Please. . .can’t we just. . .but I haven’t done anything!” sister Mary stammered.
“It matters not; it is what we are. It is what we deserve. Position yourself.” Sister Therese hardened her tone just enough to convey the importance of obedience. Whether it was her tone or her movement to pick up the whip, sister Mary was well-motivated to comply and positioned herself as she had been taught, bending over the bench and lifting the back of her robe.
Sister Therese was about to start when she noticed a slight tremble in the girl before her. Unable to stop herself, she reached out and laid a steadying hand on her back. She has chosen this life, even if only by default, she reminded herself.
The first lash drew a high-pitched shriek from the girl. Sister Therese paused. The blow had not been a hard one, though the many-tailed implement was fierce enough even when used gently. Was she hoping that crying out would buy her a measure of leniency? She should know better by now. Sister Therese lashed her again, eliciting a similar cry, though the girl made no move to rise. Perhaps she had indeed learned, Sister Therese thought. Crying out would not earn sympathy, though neither would a show of bravery. Better to let it out. With that thought, Sister Therese continued the whipping, determined to help her let out whatever it was that she needed to release.
It only took a few more lashes before the girl settled, still vocalising her discomfort, but in a much more subdued manner. Sister Therese allowed herself a small smile at the transformation that she had enabled, treating the girl to a few more moderate strokes as she sobbed before bringing the proceedings to a close with a final three sharp blows. Sister Therese left her hand on sister Mary’s back, a gentle presence as the girl composed herself.
“Rise,” Sister Therese told her gently. “You have atoned. The community awaits your return.” She offered a warm smile, though doubted sister Mary noticed as she scurried to leave.
As she watched sister Mary march wincingly to the door, Sister Therese couldn’t help but envy her; her atonement, at least was complete. As she hung the whip back on the wall, Sister Therese wished she could be freed as quickly. She looked back on her days as a Convicted almost longingly. It had been so simple then, it was something she pictured was forced on her, something to suffer through, but something that was at least quick. Since her Enlightenment, Sister Therese benefitted from none of these things. She glanced once more around the tower room, ensuring everything was in order. She had learned very thoroughly the importance of leaving this space in the exact condition it would need to be for her return that evening; the experience would be memorable enough without additional provocation. She shuddered as she thought of what awaited her, and quickly distracted herself by thinking of the events of the last few moments as she made her way out of the tower and back to the field.
One day, Sister Therese prayed, the young sister Mary would soften to hear her calling. Perhaps she, too, would be called to remain within the compound, experiencing daily its painful mysteries. Or perhaps, Sister Therese thought as she lifted her gaze from the secure walls to regard the bright blue sky, she might find her calling in the world outside. Either way, Sister Therese knew her duty, her calling, was to help the young Mary find her own.
2 thoughts on “The Convent Bell”
An excellent story. Curiously I have been reading about religious orders in earlier times. It is quite clear that although all of them seemed to relish flagellation (both self inflicted and administered) the nuns were by far the most severe. Not only did they beat themselves terribly but inflicted awful penances on sisters that erred especially novices. At one newly formed convent three monks were sent as advisors. They were so appalled at the savagery toward the novices they intervened to stop it. The Bishop was obliged to remove the nun in charge and replace her.
It’s amazing the atrocities of any scale people can commit in the name of religion. I’ll admit I was inspired to write this piece (and a few more in the works) after studying early Irish history. I’ve been amazed that even the briefest accounts of monastic life mention the brutality of corporal punishment practised.
It is nice to have fiction to smooth the edges and make the fantasy more palatable.