If she hadn’t pawned her shoes earlier that day, Alona might not have mangled her feet in the broken glass of the monastery window, and all her pain and ecstasy would have been an outlandish daydream. But she had needed the money to rent a room, and her dead sister’s boyfriend was offering a good deal on waterproofed boots. (He’d been a cop only three years ago, back in the world we’d all chosen to forget.) Someone had stolen the money in a basement pub a few hours later, but you can see how it sounded like a good idea at the time.
Alona’s feet had been numb from the cold until shards of stained glass made them bleed. Her feet came alive with a warm pain similar to the burn of stepping into the shower in December. (This all happened to Alona in late March, but it was one of those cloudless, windy nights that might as well be in December.)
At first she tried to pick it away, but the fractured glass confused her. She managed to remove the large orange shard that had lodged itself into her left heel. After that the wet shimmer of blues and golds mesmerized her so that she couldn’t distinguish glass from foot.
She was getting tired, so she scooted away from the glass and leaned into a black pile of melting snow. The burn in her feet crept upwards till it reached the moist space behind her eyes.
Two strong, cloaked arms lifted her out of the mush. Grudgingly, her eyelids opened to the whipping chill and saw a man’s face under a black hood. He wasn’t tired. If I had to guess, for all those hours of recovery that were to follow, what exactly gave her the push to make it through, I’d bet it was seeing Father Dave. He just has a look of hope that the world can’t beat out of him.
No, you can’t meet Father Dave today. He passed along with the others at the end of August. We had a militant group rush our block as they were falling back from Porter Square. Sometimes that’s just the way.
* * *
Blankets everywhere, and all of them piled on her. Alona woke to the scent of burning incense and an old man anointing her face. He was a different fellow from the last, but they wore the same black clothes. “Come back to the land of the living, have we?”
The man’s hands had no callouses. His smile was soft and kind. (This would be Brother Tom, by the way. You met him when we walked through the kitchen.) Like the blankets he was, and just as comfortable. His voice rose and fell with the raindrops falling on the stained glass windows.
She reached to scratch her left calf and realized she no longer had one. “Pity to see your legs go,” Brother Tom said. “Frostbite, gangrene … how long had you been out there?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. Alona turned over and tried to fall asleep. She imagined herself rolling her ankles — a subconscious evening ritual. She listened to his humming until her ears drifted away from her amputated body along with the rest of her consciousness into a dreamland all her own.
* * *
Even taking into account the misfortune of her lost legs, Alona soon came to regard her stay in the monastery as a blessing greater than her wildest imaginings. When she was still very sick (she had also come in with pneumonia), Father Dave came to sit by her bedside and read the Book of Judges to her. Alona would later say that was when God became a living category in her mind. He was a real person wading through all the same mess we do.
But it wasn’t just the Book of Judges, as I remember. The bathrooms are clean. The food is hot. When the brothers go to sleep, their souls are at peace. You can feel the peace sort of glowing from the walls here.
When she could wheel herself around, she began attending Vespers. After three weeks, her industrious nature had her staining glass in the workshop to repair the large window that I had shattered the night she came to us. (I had found our gun safe in the back of the refectory. I promised the brothers I didn’t mean to hurt a fly, but God has a way of making it obvious when someone decides they don’t want to play by the rules anymore.)
By the time she was preparing our meals, there was no doubt as to whether she would stay on with us long-term, except for Father Prior. “We are a House of God, not a house of flesh,” he told the brothers. After an embarrassing struggle, Father Dave ultimately won him over with the simple observation that we didn’t know of any extant nunneries where we could put in for a transfer. (Nowadays we exchange letters with our sisters in Lexington, but I’m not sure that order had already been established two years ago.)
“Feel free to take your time in deciding,” Father Prior stressed when they offered her a permanent cot.
Alona couldn’t voice her yes quickly enough. “Who needs time?” She did not know so many things, but she said yes. Father Prior continued to make inquiries after nearby convents, but no one had much hope of finding her a different home.
* * *
Then in about June one of us brothers did what he claimed was bound to happen when you let a woman, even a cripple, wonder through the Priory tempting everyone. I’m sorry to say it was me.
When word got out, no one knew what to say. Brothers Lucas, Tom, and Otto had considered it — that much was true. As they lay in bed at night, they would think of unbuttoning her dress, lifting her up and pushing her against the closet doors, each brimming over with manly expressions of admiration as they kissed her wanton breasts. Their shared closet became the site of many a secret fantasy, with its oaken door closing out the watchful eye of man.
Alona had not liked the way I wrestled her underwear off in the middle of the night. She had tried to kick me, but, having no legs, this proved quite difficult. In my memory of all this, I was quite suave, but she later told me that she just let her soul float away for a while as I fumbled with her body.
Sex for her had long ago become something detached and mechanical. I think for all of us at one point, sex was giddy and dangerous and wild. But long before entering the monastery, her meetings with men had become a chore she undertook for no greater reason than that it was expected. It felt all right mostly, especially with a gentle man who knew what he was doing, which I very much wasn’t in those days, and certainly could not have been under the circumstances.
Anyway, when I was heading out, I tripped in the doorway and caused some of the brothers in the neighboring dormitory to wake up. Alona turned over so the men wouldn’t see her exposed. It wasn’t a story that needed much explaining.
* * *
I hate to jump right to the end, but I’ve never been very good at mapping how we got from there to here. Alona always told it so well. Sometimes I still can’t believe how unscathed she walked away from this world.
If Alona hadn’t died in the militant raid a few weeks ago, she would have been ordained with the religious name Sister Carmen, and I think that’s so fitting given that beautiful voice she always had.
Is there anything else you need for your article?
Definitely Father Dave. He did a lot for me. I’d probably be dead if he hadn’t stepped in. Father Prior was making a big fuss about what was to be done. I think he tried to send Alona packing. He wanted an all-male monastery, and if what I’d done was proof of what could happen, it was good enough for him.
Oh, Brother Thomas tried to send me packing all right, which was closer to what should have happened. He and a few others were just about to toss me out of the newly finished window when someone — it might have been Brother Larry — pointed out that it was all Alona’s glass and they’d better not ruin it.
That’s when Father Dave stepped in and set me up in the attic. He’d bring me food everyday and read Scripture with me. I had my rosary beads and a Bible all to myself — that was it. Maybe a few blankets because that’s where we kept some spare linens.
I don’t know why I changed. Or I do know, sure, it was Him. What else could it be? But as far as what triggered my change of heart on it all, I don’t know. I mean, I knew it was wrong in some technical sense before I sinned. And not to make this story about me, but for background I joined the monastery in much the same way Alona did, and that was by accident. So yes, I knew the rules, but I didn’t have an especially strong relationship with Capital G “God” in the way a lot of the other brothers did.
I remember thinking while it was happening, “Hey God, if you didn’t want me to mess around you shouldn’t have left this friggin’ corpse lying here. You think I like porking between these giggling stubs? Gimme a break. I’ve seen bald dogs that looked prettier. Set me up with a real lady, some nice long legs, black dress … just see what a gentleman I’d be.”
But slowly that thinking wears away. You wake up in a nice, warm room every day, and a brother brings up the grits that you know she made especially for you. You just can’t hold onto that anger when nothing’s propelling you forward.
I really do think that’s why boys rush the streets the way they do nowadays. You need something to keep your mind off of the things you’ve let yourself do and off of not being the king you always thought you’d be.
Have we kept up with any of the militants? No, but we forgive them. It’s all in God’s hands. Alona, Father Dave, and the others, they’re where they want to be right now. Though I was really looking forward to finally calling her sister.
Veronica Wickline ’16 is an Ancient History concentrator in Kirkland House.