Sister Therese was introduced here
Therese tore her gaze from the endless blue sky and the freedom it represented. That freedom would be hers, but not quite yet. She wiped her hands on her grey robe and quickly returned to her work, lest any of the Enlightened sisters take her to task for daydreaming. She snuck furtive glimpses to each side as she returned her attention to the washing, but saw none of the black-robed Enlightened sisters approaching to confront her on the delay. Therese sighed with relief. She had managed to avoid punishment for more than a week- the longest stretch she had managed by far since her time of Conviction had begun. Her bottom had managed to heal completely, with not even a hint of the dusky rose that had characterised its surface for much of her time at the convent.
Just one more day, one more sleep, and one more meeting with the Mother. Therese suppressed a chuckle at this last thought. Her “enlightenment meeting” was scheduled for this very evening, though if the Mother expected her to be Enlightened she was sorely mistaken.
After suffering through three years as a Convict among the sisters, Therese could not understand why any woman who survived the experience would want to remain at the convent as one of the Enlightened sisters. Perhaps some took some measure of joy in inflicting the same punishments they had received on the new Convicted sisters, but even that could not counterbalance the fact that even the Enlightened were subject to the same rules and chastisements. Any woman choosing such a life must be mad, and Therese had sufficient first-hand experience to convince herself of that point.
Still, she had no desire to enrage the Mother on her final night. If nothing else, she had learned how to fake a demure attitude during her stay; it had been worth swallowing her pride to preserve her ability to sit down on occasion. However, as she rarely managed to maintain the facade for more than a few days, she knew her temper and her nature were wholly intact. And wholly unsuited to life in the convent. She had not been broken as the Enlightened must have been, and could only count the hours until her release.
And so she did, marking time by the progress of the sun until a peal of the bell called the sisters to the evening meal and devotion. The sombre affair passed quickly this time, a sudden mercy after many long, and dragging evenings during her Conviction. Therese did not dwell on the thought, any small blessing that sped her freedom closer was a blessing she would take.
The climb up to the Mother’s room did drag. It always did and tonight was no different, even though Therese had no need to fear the pain and humiliation that lay waiting beyond the door. All the same, she felt the familiar cramping flutter in her lower belly as she made the familiar climb. She paused for a breath, trying to remind herself that this time would be different, that there was no reason to be afraid, and yet the feeling only intensified. Giving up on controlling her emotions, Therese shifted her focus to the climb and after a small eternity knocked on the Mother’s door.
“Enter,” called the voice, in the same deceptively soft and friendly tones that were always used; tones that were at complete odds with the suffering the bearer of the voice could invoke.
Therese opened the door just far enough to slip through before soundlessly closing it behind her, as if to keep the tormentor asleep within the Mother at peace. The Mother regarded her with the same look she always had, the impression that Therese could not classify as anything but kindness even though she knew that the same woman who appeared so gentle and understanding was about to be far from gentle in her handling of her transgressions and her bottom. Even without knowing the smile was merely a distraction from the pain to come, it was terrifying in its own way; between the darkened room and the Mother’s black robes, her head seemed to loom disembodied out of nothingness.
It was the falseness in the expression that truly terrified her, however. The Mother never appeared, never sounded, to be anything but kind and concerned. The sensations she imparted, however, were anything but. Therese had spent many hours in this room, often wailing in agony under the lash and struggling to reconcile the severity of the punishment with the Mother’s words of forgiveness.
Her bottom was safe this evening, which should have made the Mother’s kindness feel less out of place.
Therese shifted uncomfortably in front of her. She had known the kindness of the Mother was just an act, a bit of foreplay to make the moment of justice and retribution hit more harshly. There was no other explanation for her soft words and tender caresses which opened these sessions.
Except tonight, when Therese knew her bottom was safe, such logic did not hold. She tried to dismiss the thought, but it remained with her, steadily dismantling her world view.
“I see great potential in you,” the Mother prompted gently.
Therese snapped her eyes up to meet the mothers, but the joke didn’t seem to have registered there. Therese played along, pretending that the phrase was as serious and well intentioned as it sounded. It was only polite.
“With respect, I disagree,” Therese replied in a well-practiced tone. “You know that I have struggled here, and I doubt very much that I would find any degree of peace in staying.”
“True, you have required more attention than most of the Convicted,” the Mother continued, her smiling eyes not giving any hint of euphemism as she spoke of the “attention” Therese had required. “The same traits that made your Conviction so difficult will make you an excellent Enlightened sister.”
“Again,” Therese began before taking a steadying breath to conceal her desire to be anywhere else, “I do not believe that I will find enlightenment here. I have found nothing of the sort during my conviction, so perhaps enlightenment is not for me. I would be better off elsewhere, not depriving the other sisters of your tender attention,” Therese couldn’t help but utter the slight, but managed to keep her voice unprovoking. The Mother only smiled more broadly; she had succeeded.
“I think you’ll find enlightenment lies on either path. You can either take your experience here out into the world, carrying with you what lessons your time here has taught. Or you may remain, sharing those lessons with those to come, an act which brings a level of enlightenment on its own.”
“Why would I?” Therese struggled to keep her voice level in face of the propaganda being spouted in this last attempt to ensnare her. “I’ve suffered through my sentence here, and I see no reason to prolong the experience. You’ve said yourself there is little difference in the lifestyle of the enlightened sisters. I’ve tried that lifestyle, and I’ve found it does not suit me.”
“Perhaps, though I would say you have not tried it fully. Being a Convicted here is not the same as choosing to remain as an Enlightened sister. The acts you perform and things you enture are largely the same, as you are aware, but it will no longer be a punishment.”
Therese couldn’t contain her snort of derision, though managed to temper it slightly. “The Enlightened are still punished.”
“Still chastised, yes, and still punished when warranted, but there is a difference between discipline and punishment. The lives of the Enlightened are disciplined, though in general they do not require punishment as the sentenced do.”
“But they are still punished, still disciplined,” Therese interjected, feeling her patience beginning to wane. “They still do the exact same things the Convicted do, they have no more freedom than they did during their sentence.”
“Not in a physical sense, but the freedom is in the choosing,” the Mother continued gently, giving no indication that she had noticed Therese’s discomfort with the conversation. “Enlightenment is not a decision made once, but each day a sister chooses to remain with us, each time she submits herself to our way of life, each time she shows a Convicted what this life means.”
“You have much to ponder this night,” the Mother spoke into the stretching silence. “Perhaps I will see you in the morning,” she finished with a gesture of dismissal.
It was an odd way to part, Therese thought as she descended back to her own cell, though the Mother had always seemed rather odd. Why should their final encounter be any different? She stripped off her grey robe for the final time, casting it aside with her tormented thoughts. Besides, in the morning she would be on her way and could put this whole period well behind her.
In the darkness of the night, memories of the Mother floated back as Therese lay sleepless on her pallet, failing to banish or suppress them.
Morning dawned early, as it always did on clear summer days. Therese rose with the light, and was almost shocked to see that her grey robe had been removed in the night. This in itself was not alarming; such was the usual practice of the laundress to slip in and out at night, leaving a clean robe folded by the door. Instead of a new grey robe, however, Therese found the clothing she had worn before her sentencing had been left in it’s place. She lifted the rough green tunic, running her fingers over the now unfamiliar material, trying to remember a time when this garment was once hers. She had expected to feel relief, but as much as she searched for it, grasped for it, could only feel emptiness.
Lowering the garment with a sigh, Therese noticed for the first time that another garment had been left for her as well. Beneath the tunic, where she would have expected to find her grey robe of Conviction, was instead the dark black of the Enlightened.
Therese almost laughed at the audacity of whoever it was who left the garment, who thought that she might choose. . .but the giggle caught in her throat as the rising sun glinted off the short black multi-tailed whip curled on the robe. Therese approached it carefully, as though it were a snake that may strike at any moment. She ran her fingertips along the smooth tails, but felt no revulsion at the presence of the instrument, so similar to those she had become all too well acquainted with. She thought to turn, to dress herself in her old clothing and set out, but found herself all but enraptured, ensnared by the whip. She tried to summon revulsion, but it wouldn’t come.
“Silly girl,” she chided herself aloud, still unsuccessful in her half-hearted efforts to tear her gaze away. “Have you forgotten already what harm it can cause?” She tried to recall the worst of her punishments, and though she could summon a dim memory of pain, the sensation was drowned out in her memory by a calm, smiling face.
Therese sprang back as the revulsion she sought surged up, though it was not directed at the whip or her memories, but at a desire long-hidden and only now bubbling to the surface. It was wrong to want this, it made no sense, and yet she could not rid herself of the feeling.
Perhaps it was just nerves, she thought as she paced her cell. Returning to the outside world would be a shock after so long in the convent. Maybe she wasn’t ready quite yet. Perhaps she just needed a bit more time to get used to the idea. The Mother had said she could leave whenever she wished. Perhaps she just needed a little more time, perhaps she needed just one more reminder of the needless pain this place would continue to bring.
Perhaps just once. . .
Therese felt the familiar fluttering sensation as she approached the Mother’s room yet again, just as strong as it had been the previous evening. The cold, solid shaft of the whip in her hands lent a mysterious strength. She knocked on the door as she had before and entered at the familiar friendly command.
As Therese stood before the Mother, she found she was unable to summon the insolence she had so long carried and concealed. She nodded to the Mother, standing demurely and respectfully as before. It had always been a mask, a carefully practiced act of contrition that was completely at odds with her inner feelings of indignation at being summoned for punishment. But now she had not been summoned and without the anger to mask found the mask was not a mask at all. Therese remained silent, struggling with the realisation.
The Mother gave a slight nod of understanding. “You have decided to stay,” she said simply, though the words conveyed great warmth.
“Yes,” replied Therese, “I changed . . .” she was about to say “my mind,” but realised that was not quite true. She told herself it was because she had not yet committed to staying, but did not utter that lie aloud.
The Mother nodded again, her gaze conveying a deeper understanding than Therese had of her own motivations for remaining. “Understanding will come in time. However, I believe we have something to attend to this morning. You have brought it?”
Therese handed over the whip, and the Mother offered another small, kind smile. “Prepare yourself,” she instructed.
Therese knelt, lowering her head to the floor and raising the hem of her black robes to bare her bottom. Though the posture was familiar, the context was alien. Though she felt a certain peace in her supplication, that very peace was in itself disconcerting. And yet this felt right. It was the first time since her arrival that her bottom was offered for a whipping in a pristine condition. It was a new beginning, even if very little appeared to change.
A sudden lash spared her from further speculation and a cry escaped her lips. All of her work, her kowtowing attempt to preserve her bottom had come to nothing it seemed. Therese gritted her teeth as the second lash fell, determined to not cry out again. She held herself stiffly as the whipping continued. The Mother did not lecture as she had in the past, she had nothing to lecture on. Perhaps it was the silence that wore her down; although it was only a moderate chastisement in comparison to many in her past, Therese found herself panting and on the edge of tears by the time the Mother’s steady hands helped her to rise.
Therese tried again to summon her usual post-punishment fury at the pain that had been inflicted on her, but for once she could not even try to blame the Mother for her situation. She had nowhere to redirect the pain. She had chosen. As she looked up at the Mother’s concerned face, she felt tears begin to trail down her own. The Mother pulled her into a silent hug, supporting her and murmuring assurances as she brought herself back under control.
“It is a lot to take in, isn’t it?” the Mother asked. Therese nodded silently. “Be gentle with yourself, these next few days will be difficult. Remember to visit when you need to.”
Therese nodded again, and managed a small smile as she readjusted her robes.
“Off to breakfast with you, I am sure we will meet again soon,” the Mother said by way of dismissal. Therese nodded politely and departed for the refectory. Crossing the courtyard, Therese turned her eyes toward the endless blue sky, stretching infinitely above the convent walls and the freedom they contained.