Lightning cuts the dense purple haze. They are electric capillaries shooting a moment of life into the fattened sky. Then, just as quickly, they are gone, swallowed by clouds mostly hidden behind a wrinkled sheet of mist. What remains is a kind of ghost, the briefest scent of an electrical burn, and a lingering discontent that nights like this one typically inspire. A rolling drum of thunder follows, but Maria does not hear them over her own heartbeat. Given her anxieties just then, it is impossible for her to separate the storm outside her windshield from the one inside her mind. She knows that she should try to dislodge the one from the other. That mental act alone might calm her down a little. Let her put this night into perspective. Perhaps, allow her rational mind just enough breathing space to convince her right now to pull her car over to the side and to turn back.
Instead, Maria hunches closer to her steering wheel, and looks up at the sky like a little girl about to be smacked by Mother Superior. She had heard over the car radio earlier that there is a tornado warning in effect, and she sees what looks like a thickening swirl of mist overhead. The edges of the mist swirl arch upward like the grin of the Cheshire cat. The storm is laughing at her, and normally Maria would be indignant enough to give this weather pattern a piece of her mind.
But tonight is not normal. It is May 29th.
For the passed dozen years, every May 29th has been like this one. Not always a storm, let alone one with a tornado warning, but always an occasion for cold sweat and quickened breaths. The fear is palpable that day from the very moment that she sneaks out of her bed, but it crawls up closer to her skin as the night draws near. By the time she hides her small frame inside her trench coat and boots, and pockets the car key she leaves by her front door, she is a mess of raw emotions. The fear is a sick predator grasping at her heart, and it takes every last bit of strength for her to carry the pink cake box from the kitchen out to the trunk of her car.
Maria has been staring up at the mist too long, for she is surprised free from her anxieties a moment when blinded by approaching headlights. She swerves back into her lane in time. The passing driver presses long and hard on his horn. Another night he would have rolled down his window and squawked something profane as a kind of punctuation mark for his horn, but the raindrops are starting to fall. He is an irate driver, but not so mindless as to invite raindrops on his car leather, and so he is going to let her off this time with whatever scream his automobile can muster. Maria is terrified just the same, and remembers when Mother Superior screeched holy hell the night Maria first had her period. The old lady’s face had shrunken into a writhing snake’s by that point, but she still managed that fire-breathing yell she had perfected over the decades of leading the cloistered nunnery.
Ghoulish faces droop down the face of the windshield, as rain starts to collect there. Maria switches on the wipers, which only helps a little. The ghouls are swiped off the front glass, but mock her still in her rearview mirror. She wishes she also had wipers for her back window, but then senses it would not matter. The drooping rain ghouls are going to appear on any reflective surfaces beyond the reach of a wiper or a towel. Storms will not remain unseen, no matter how many curtains loosened and pulled together. Maria learned this fact about life even before she could talk, and she has carried that insight with her since. Recognizing that escape is futile inspires cold fatalism over time, but coming to terms with that reality does not lessen the anxious dread. The woman buckled into a car she knows will be driven off a cliff remains just as frightened as the car careens toward the edge.
The lightning veins flash overhead again. This time, the electric charge seems to persist a little longer. Rather than vanish back into the sky gunk from which it had been discharged, the lightning bleeds into the tree lined, rolling hills on both sides of the highway. The illuminated trees are tall, stooped, and naked. They shiver on their thin trunks like dancing skeletons held up by an unseen puppet master. It appears at any moment one of them could snap in two and tumble down to the dark and windy road. That does not happen, though several times low hanging branches brush upon the windshield and leave behind slimy twigs. The wipers do not manage to swipe off all of them, and if the trees continue to assault her car in this way Maria will have no choice finally but to pull over to the side to brush off the twigs and the sticks herself.
As it turns out, before Maria needs to do that, she sees ahead the sign with an arrow pointing to Old Nuns Road. The sign is faded and mostly hidden behind a few overgrown trees, but Maria knows it well. She slows down, and pulls onto a gravelly path that snakes into the dense old forest on her right side.
Gnarled trees press down hard upon the path like mothers trying to smother their unwanted girls. Branches poke and scrape the windshield, and the intertwined roots spread across the surface grasp at the mud caked tires. Few drivers ever come out this way. Most of them end up getting stuck in a web of roots and vines. Because there is no cellular phone connection out here, they have to walk back on foot to the highway to wave down a vehicle. For all of her anxieties at the moment, Maria is not going to fall prey to the forest in that manner tonight. She has been on this path way too many times already to be tangled by its dark and menacing twists. Maria smartly puts her car into a lower gear, and focuses her attention on the narrow path beneath her instead of the overbearing trees.
The path comes to an abrupt stop at the face of a tall, rusted, iron gate on the edge of the forest. Framed at the center of the corroded gate is the chiseled, solemn face of Mother Philomena. The iron face is pockmarked with greenish brown rust all over and features the open mouth of a Screaming Medusa. Maria remembers vividly that framed, candlelit face hanging on stonewalls throughout the convent. Hundreds of years ago, this namesake of the virgin martyr saint founded the order; and though this Philomena has not been canonized officially, the nuns of her order regard her as such. Maria has not been inside the convent in many years, and yet she still sees that scowling face in her nightmares.
Lightning streaks above the grassy knoll beyond the iron gate. For a moment, the greenish brown acne splattered across Philomena’s face sparkles, and Maria has to look away. She mutters a short prayer, while seated in her idling car before a gate that looks like something from a medieval painting of Dante’s Inferno. A vicious slap of thunder accompanies the end of her prayer. It is as if the storm is in sync with her trembling anxiety. It is taunting the cold, raw fears that she normally keeps jarred in her bowels; and as a result, she finds it hard just then to keep from hyperventilating.
Maria leans back on her seat. She presses her trembling palms up against her forehead. She listens to the rain striking the mud puddles outside her car. The rain is so powerful it drowns out the sound of her engine.
Suddenly, there is a hard knock on her driver’s side window. Though she had expected Cliven to arrive soon, she is still startled by the noise. Removing her hands from her face, she is blinded momentarily by a flashlight. The man on the other side seems to have noticed how he scared her, and so he moves the flashlight away from her eyes. There is an awkward silence, as Maria gathers her thoughts before bracing for the rain and the wind.
Maria unlocks her door, and Cliven opens it for her. Cliven is old enough to be her father. He is a gaunt, bald man with abnormally large ears. Most startling are his eyes, though. Even when he is helpful or pleasant, which is most of the time, his eyes dart every which way in the shifty manner of a crook conniving for advantage. His is the face of an old man harboring dark secrets. His stooped shoulders suggest that he is weighed down by those secrets and that he is as troubled as he is potentially dark and malevolent. Maria has known Cliven all her life. He has been the handyman and the gravedigger on the convent grounds since before she was born, and he is as near to a father figure as she has ever known. Still, every time she sees him she senses the cold, raw heart buried deep in his chest.
Cliven holds up an opened umbrella with one hand. Taking shelter beneath it, Maria walks back to the trunk, opens it, and sees the pink cake box. Cliven points the flashlight at it, while Maria retrieves it from the trunk. After she closes the trunk, she cradles the box close to her heaving bosom, while Cliven escorts her to the iron gate.
Cliven unlocks the gate with an oversized key. Philomena’s old, scowling face separates into two halves as Cliven pulls the two doors of the creaky gate away from each other. Maria focuses on the slippery mud beneath her feet, while ascending the grassy knoll beneath Cliven’s umbrella.
Though mostly invisible at night, there are a number of miniature, unmarked tombstones scattered across the wind swept hill. Maria knows this area well, for she spent much of her childhood playing alone here. She had given each of the graves an imaginary friend name, and whenever the children came out from beneath the grass she would play hide and go seek with them. She does not remember much about the children now, except that they were thin and sickly like herself. They had deeply set eyes, or sometimes no eyes at all, and they smelled like they really needed a hot bath with soap. They never frightened her, though, and today Maria thinks about her time with the children on the hill as among the few positive moments in a dark childhood.
Maria reaches the stone cross at the top of the grassy knoll. She stops a while to catch her breath. Cliven stays as near to her as possible to protect her and her box from the torrential rain.
“Did you write a new poem?” Cliven asks.
Maria looks up from her feet. She stares deeply into Cliven’s eyes.
“Your mother loves it when you do,” Cliven says.
“Yes,” Maria says with a small nod of her head.
Cliven smiles awkwardly. He hugs Maria closely with the hand with which he is also holding the flashlight. The gesture means a lot, and for the very first time that night Maria is able to relax a little. She looks back up at Cliven and smiles thankfully for his fatherly touch.
They start down the other side of the hill together. The convent rests atop the next hill over. It is shrouded in dismal darkness, though an occasional lightning flash reveals its aged stone edifice. Soon, there will be a flickering candlelight from inside one of the stained glass windows. When that happens, that will mean that the sisters still remaining are assembled for Compline. Maria knows the Latin chant all too well and likely always will. This place will remain forever a home for her, no matter how much she has tried over the years to forge a new life for herself in the secular world.
Nestled in the valley beneath the two hills is a maze of tombstones separated by gnarled trees and vines. A thick, bluish mist floats in between the stone markers and adds a ghostly hue to the cemetery. Unlike the small tombstones on the far side of the hill, these markers have been chiseled with the names and dates of the sisters of the order going back hundreds of years. Mother Philomena’s scowling face is also chiseled on the face of each tombstone. The first Mother Superior is everywhere, an unvoiced scream of moral denunciation fading in and out of the mist.
Midway down the hill, Cliven stops Maria and gently touches her face. She is surprised but does not try to move away.
“It’s going to be different this year,” Cliven says awkwardly.
“I don’t understand,” Maria says.
“Your mother wants it to be this way,” Cliven says.
Maria nods in the affirmative, though she still has no idea what he is saying.
Cliven smiles back, but he is clearly hiding something. He points the flashlight further down the hill as a gesture for them to continue. Maria does so, but is worried now about what may be in store. The cemetery is normally spooky this time of night, but suddenly there is an underlying menace that Maria never felt before. She feels as if she is being watched. She sees the omnipresent façade of Mother Philomena, but it is something or someone other than her. A foreboding chill trembles down her spine that has nothing to do with the cold raindrops beating against her trench coat. She is so horrified she can barely breathe, and Cliven has to nudge her forward continually.
They reach the bottom of the hill. The convent looms above them at the top of the next hill like the high wall of a castle. The howling wind is considerably stronger in this narrow mud basin. Maria’s trench coat snaps like a sail trapped in a mad gale, and Cliven struggles to hold her up. Even worse is the mud. As the rain is dislodging dirt from the two hills, the gooey mud down below rises. Already, Maria and Cliven’s feet are ankle deep in this cemetery swamp; and it will become more precarious for them the longer they remain there.
Cliven directs Maria toward the statue of Saint Margaret of Cortona. The saint is depicted in her full habit with upturned eyes and outstretched arms. She holds an enormous cross in her right hand. As the patron saint of unwed mothers, she stands guard over the tombstone of the notorious Sister Josefina. Given all of the unmarked tombstones on the other side of the hill, it is apparent then that Josefina is notorious not because she broke her vow of chastity, but because she insisted on keeping alive the little girl born of temptation and sin.
Cliven points the flashlight at the statue. Raindrops drop as rivulets down all of the carved creases in the saint’s attire. The rain mixes in with tree bark sprinkled over the old statue, and the result is a saint draped in reddish brown rainwater. For a moment, because of the color of this rainwater, it looks like Margaret of Cortona in fact has been vandalized by an overturned bucket of blood. The pious expression on her face is incongruent with how apparently she has been defiled. In that vein, she is either a symbol of hopeless naivety or of scathing sarcasm. Maybe, the naivety leads in time to the sarcasm. Regardless, as a defiled statue, she is a monstrous symbol of a dark truth Maria had not hoped to confront directly on this her mother’s birthday.
Cliven holds back Maria, and then he lowers the flashlight to reveal Josefina’s open grave. The dirt covering over her coffin is in a pile off to the side. A mud draped shovel leans against the side of the tombstone. Rainwater rivulets slither down from Margaret of Cortona’s feet and into that worm infested charnel space where Josefina has been entombed for the past twelve years.
Maria is flabbergasted. Never before has Cliven dug up her mother’s grave. In the past, she would recite her poem for that year, place the birthday cake before the tombstone, pay her respects, and then leave. In some ways, her annual ritual on May 29th is like the Day of the Dead down in Mexico. In secret, her mother used to bake a cupcake for her birthday every year, and now Maria is returning the favor. It is their pact, an unspoken promise to be in solidarity together against a world that does not want them. There is no place for a pregnant nun, and there is no place for a little girl raised by a nun in a convent, except for the place those two women carve out for one another. It always has been hard for Maria to come back to this spot on her mother’s birthday, but seeing the grave open and drenched with what looks like rain blood is beyond comprehension and horrifying.
“Why?” Maria asks incredulously.
“This is what your mother wants,” Cliven answers.
“But I don’t understand…” Maria begins to say.
“Read your poem,” Cliven says more firmly.
In the afterglow from a lightning flash, Maria sees a blackness in Cliven’s eyes she has never before experienced. There is something very wrong with him. It is like the man she has known all of her life has been replaced with a stranger. Her instinct is to run, but she knows better than to try. She cannot restrain her tears, though. She unleashes them in a torrent of fear for her own life and grief for how this special day has been defiled.
“Read your poem,” Cliven orders a second time.
Trembling, Maria places the pink cake box before the open grave. She opens the box to reveal a white birthday cake decorated with the number “12.” The storm will destroy the cake within minutes, but she proceeds anyway with the solemn rite.
Maria stands up. She removes a folded note from inside her coat.
Holding up the umbrella with one hand, Cliven points the flashlight with the other at the note. He has done the same thing every year since Josefina died, except of course without the umbrella when there had not been rain. Typically, he is quiet, and a little strange, while Maria reads out her poem; but this time, he is a menace in the guise of a father figure. He stays still, but is barely able to contain his rage. Maria feels like one of those persons kidnapped by terrorists who has to read a videotaped statement. Though she wrote this poem, right now her own words sound completely foreign to her ears. Like with Cliven, it is as if Maria too has been cut off from herself. The real Maria is somewhere else. Perhaps, the real Maria is still that little girl up on the hill playing hide and go seek with those children from the unmarked graves. She had found joy up there, so perhaps that is where she stayed. If so, then she stands at this very spot as a fake Maria beside a fake Cliven; and this is not really her mother’s grave, but rather is a perverse facsimile dug out from a mud caked cemetery in Hell.
This dissociation from the “real” Maria makes no sense rationally, but this is how it feels. Maria seems to have lost herself, her father figure, and even her mother the moment a lightning flash revealed Cliven’s black eyes. Everything that mattered is gone in a snap; and she is left with nothing, but a wet coat and a rain soaked cake.
Maria whispers the words of her poem through her disconsolate tears. With the clamoring rain and the occasional drums of thunder overhead, it is hard even for Cliven to hear her inches away. Nonetheless, the words manage to poke through her tears like outstretched fingers from beneath six feet of dirt. It is just enough to show that there is life still beneath all that padded soil.
Maria chants in a solemn tone: Tonight is the night/Little girl’s delight/Joyful to know your day/I am twelve, your secret wray/A girl well on her way/This year I learn a Latin pun/And recite a Sitwell poem/Still Falls the Rain/Her blood’s refrain/
Maria’s tears swallow the next few words that follow. She shudders as much from an emerging memory as from her fears. Cliven nudges her to continue with the poem no matter the pain.
Maria continues: Salvation regret/No longer a pet/But a girl to be despised…
She drops her note to the ground, and lowers her head. She cannot continue.
“There is more to be said about your twelfth year,” Cliven says.
“I cannot,” Maria mutters in shame.
“You refuse to confess!” Cliven yells.
“No!” Maria wails.
“Blood whore!” Cliven yells. “Sign of the devil!”
Maria breaks free from Cliven’s grasp. She staggers backward. She sees in her mind a blanket about to be placed over her face, while Mother Superior glares down at her from the side of the bed. Josefina stands beside Mother Superior. Josefina is all consumed with fear and rage, and her unvoiced scream reminds Maria of the icon of Mother Philomena. Maria cannot tell which one of them is holding the blanket, for it is dark in her convent cell apart from a flickering candle.
Maria tries to swat that memory off, but her flailing arms only push against the rain and the wind. She slips on the mud, and falls onto her back. Loosened slime from the two hills flows over her writhing flesh like it is literally trying to press her into a grave. She manages to sit up on her bleeding elbows, and she faces Josefina’s open grave. What she sees next transfixes her to that slimy mud hole into eternity.
A skeleton with long, white hair crawls out from inside Josefina’s grave. It is draped in shredded, worm-infested fragments of a nun’s habit. Its brittle bones snap and crackle like twigs in a bonfire, and its cracked skull bobbles loosely over what is left of its snakelike spine. Only the eyes seem substantial. Embedded deeply in dark, hallowed eye sockets are flickering candles. The candlelight in each socket is diffuse, like it is flowing into the dark and stormy world outside through stained glass. From the unseen stained glass the light takes on the crimson red hue of a little girl’s blood.
The skeleton crawls to the pink box, views the birthday cake, and dives into it like a famished dog. Its loosened jaws mostly manage to break the cake apart, and as a result of how its skull bobs up and down the little pieces of cake are tossed around every which way. The pink box is trampled into the mud by the skeleton’s ribcage as the smiling skeleton crawls erratically toward Maria. As the skeleton approaches on all fours Maria can observe cake and icing still clinging to the skeletal jaw like icicles.
Maria hears the Compline chant. She cannot tell if it is coming from inside the convent walls far above her, from inside her mother’s glowing eyes, or from her own mind. There seems to be no distinction between the three. All that matters is the soft and deep murmur of a little heart longing for salvation, a heart set apart from all the others in the back of the chapel: Regina Caeli, sit laeta, Alleluia/Vos, qui dingus ferre eum, Alleluia/Surrexit, sicut locutus est, Alleluia/Ora pro nobis ad Deum, Alleluia.
Maria remembers in vivid detail what she did not include in her poem. She is a twelve-year-old girl sitting in her bath when she sees blood from inside her legs all of a sudden floating up to the water’s surface. She is strangely frightened and excited by this first indication of womanhood. She also knows it is a terrible secret she must reveal only to her mother. She can trust her mother not to divulge this to the others, including even the Mother Superior. She has a pact with her mother, and her mother with her. She knows in her heart her mother will never reveal to anyone her shame.
And then Maria remembers darkness, as the blanket is pressed hard over her face. She struggles reflexively at first, but then subsides into that blackness reserved for bleeding sinners.
* * *
The sun shines over the wind swept hill. A bird sings off in the distance. Wind whispers a soothing lullaby for bowed hearts, but on this occasion the spring wind is not consoling enough to prevent one of the nuns from breaking into tears. As may be expected given the occasion, that one nun is Sister Josefina, who steps away without hesitation from her sisters huddled in habits on the side of the hill.
Josefina approaches the unmarked grave. Cliven already has shoveled loosed dirt over the wood coffin. He will lay grass over it later. For now, the padded mound still indicates the shape and the size of the coffin six feet under Josefina’s naked feet. The mound is small and thin, like the little girl it is now hiding from the world. Maria had been her name in this life, but into eternity she will have no name. In time, when all of the nuns here assembled have been padded into their graves down in the mud basin, no one alive will remember that this nameless girl had been a bleeding sinner. The short life, like the sin that defiled it, will have been shed from the memory of the world like all bad things should.
Or that is what Mother Superior says. Josefina is not so sure, but she does not voice her reservations. Instead, she chooses to keep Maria in her heart. When Cliven buries her someday in the basin, she will keep Maria down there with her too. For in the end, sin and secrets both are buried far from the glare of the sun, and left for the maggots and the worms to devour. That is salvation, a lifetime neat and tidy forever.