Louise and I are in the kitchen. I am nine, and considered big enough to help prepare dinner. Louise looks at me, her hair wrapped up in a dull scarf the color of a bruise. She has her hands on her hips and holds a dishcloth. “Léonie, you great fool of a girl, hurry up and help me wash the bowls.” I imagine the dishcloth whipping the backs of my legs as it has done before. But this time the whipping is just in my head. I take the cloth from her tough hand and squash it tightly inside my own. I am lucky; she busies herself with folding and stacking, away from my body. I stand at the sink and stare into the greyish water. Dull oil flecks its surface and I see murky spots swell and disperse below. I think of sin, and the way it blooms unbidden in my soul. I think of the splotches of hurt that appear on my body after Louise has beaten me, hurt she has bidden me to hide from Mama. Louise beats the sin out of me, forcing it to the surface so that it can be purged. The trouble is, there is always more. I am faulty, like a leaky kitchen pipe.
“Léonie, hurry up! Stir the fish soup and start to serve. You are making your entire family go hungry. Do you like to cause them such unhappiness?” Louise’s voice is sharp with a blade of threat, but she doesn’t bother to turn around.
“I am sorry, Louise.” I move to the stove and kneel up on the chair so I can reach, stir and apportion the soup. Its salty tang reaches the back of my mouth and I cannot tell whether it causes a strange pleasure or incipient retching. I know I must not cough; that itself could cause a beating. I swallow and lift up my arm. I stir, one slow circle of the pan, then manage the heft of the full ladle into the first bowl, and pour.
Grace is said. The family eats. Céline, new at table, swings her legs from the wooden chair on which she has been placed. There is a proud look on her round face. Marie and Pauline raise and lower their spoons modestly, and in a kind of harmony, Marie answering unconsciously to the pace set by her straight-backed sibling. Papa resides at the head of the table, and yet his softened expression sets him apart. He is still dreaming, perhaps, of the fish that swam past his rod and bait in the stillness of the morning. Papa and his daughters; the soup is swallowed silently, and a sort of sweet chiming punctuates its consumption. I grip my spoon and clank it by accident against my glass. Imaginary salt already coats my tongue.
Mama pushes her bowl towards me. She has not yet started her soup. “Léonie.” She names me as though I am a stranger.
I stare at the square of dishcloth floating like a jellyfish in its pool. The cloth wavers from the bowl’s journey across the table, then subsides into a heaviness at the bottom of the soup.
I get up to go to my room, my eyes stinging. “Léonie! Apologize to your mother!” Pauline has understood the situation with her usual effortless ability. But I cannot. I think of the bowls in the cupboard, lying there like empty shells. In my room the curtains remain undrawn. I crawl under the bedclothes like a dying crab.
I am a big girl now. I am eleven years old, and soon the Lord will visit my heart. Mama prepares me, and Pauline assists me. But when I pray I see my little sisters; Céline with the self-possessed instincts of a little painter, and Thérèse with her uptilted chin and great wide smile. When I look in the glass I try to smile like her; my chin has the same strength and stubbornness but somehow my smile is never as broad. Pauline tells me to prepare a spiritual bouquet. Instead of a bunch of flowers, I must offer a bunch of good deeds to Jesus so that he will be a friend of my soul. This is a difficult thing, though, for me to muster, as I am troubled by abstract virtues. They slip through my mind like the sand.
I wake up and have the solution to my challenge. I am a big girl now, so have no need of dolls. Hélène, my sister-twin, is no longer in the world to play with me. She died and became a doll for the child Jesus to hold in his little pink hands. Perhaps the same thing will happen to me when I open my mouth to the Host.
Today, I will offer a bouquet of beautiful rags. I place my doll on my lap and take a basket, filling it with braid, doll dresses, and squares of silk: blue, pink and brown. I dress the doll, Madeleine, in a rose pink gown, an offcut from the material of Marie’s best dress. I lay Madeleine on her bed of finery. Balancing the basket on my hip the way Aunt Rose used to hold Thérèse as a baby, I clatter downstairs. Céline and her little companion play in the garden. But they are quieter than I would have been; Thérèse’s skipping rope rests on the little bench, and the girls face each other, playing some kind of guessing game. They turn to look at me, like a couple of blue-eyed cats. “I am too old to play with dolls,” I say, not knowing how to begin. “Please take from the basket as you wish.”
“Léonie. Papa always calls you kind,” says Céline, assessing my mood as though I am a sky of shifting clouds. She comes to a satisfactory conclusion and offers me a smile. “Please take whatever you wish,” I say again. “I am eleven years old and preparing my bouquet.” At this, Céline exchanges a glace with her playmate, but Thérèse does not return it, her eyes on my basket full of dolls clothes as if she has felt a sudden hunger in herself.
Without replying further, Céline steps forward and frowns at the silks and braids. She takes a small cutting of blue silk, and, at my further urging, a small piece of braid. She steps back, as though she has received a token at a prize-giving. And now I offer my bouquet to Thérèse. She looks at me as though she can see all the beautiful flowers I would like to hold in my arms at my First Communion. And so doing she advances with both her arms held wide, her smile as bright as the heavens on a clear summer’s day. “I choose all!” she says to me. And having reflected on her own words, she says them again. I choose all.
When Mama is dying I ask for the grace to give up my life for hers. I light a candle to St. Anthony in church, as he is the saint of lost things, and I sense that I am lost. Soon I develop a cough. “I’ve offered to die so Mama can live,” I tell Marie. She looks at me as though I’ve misbehaved again. Then she waves me away. I rip up bits of paper in my room. I imagine I am a lace-maker, stitching together first communion veils.
After Mama’s death, Céline runs to Marie, Thérèse to Pauline, who gathers her up and gives her a kiss. I stand in the drafty hallway, left to the airy flicker of ghosts.
In Lisieux, I attend the Abbey school, a ghost myself. I am a ghostly boarder while Céline returns nightly to Les Buissonets. I am on permanent suspension, permanent detention. I must learn to spell the words of gentleness, trade in the sweetmeats of love, the only permitted currencies of home.
When I finally return, I am bloodless. I sleep in the silence of my room.
All the griefs of my family seep into my awkward body. I hold them inside me like a rancid soup. Someone sticks a notice up on my wall: “She who won’t come out to play, dozes off in the light of day!”
Léonie in her limbo. Dull veil of shut eyes in the afternoon sun.
I am twenty-three years old. Pauline has become a Carmelite, scaling the heights of perfection even in her choice of convent. Marie is to enter Carmel, too: a slow boat sailing into port. Little Thérèse is desperate to follow. She walks around our new house in Lisieux as though she is a consecrated hermit, except when Céline draws her out of her sadness. Poor Léonie though—the future is spelled out in my name: Poor Léonie will hold to her poverty, and become a Poor Clare.
My vows to be woven in a brutal crown of thorns.
At Alençon, while Marie is saying her farewell to old friends, I speak to the Mother Superior of the convent where I once prayed with Mama. She looks at me with strong dark eyes, and bids me approach the convent grille. “Are you willing to sacrifice your life?” she asks. Her breath smells of metal.
“I am willing,” I confirm.
She accepts me on the spot. Without further ceremony, two sisters receive me at the door to the side of the convent parlor. Before a word is said, I am presented with the brown robes of the novitiate. When Papa comes to collect me I am on the other side of the grille. His mouth tries to form the words of a blessing his soul is not ready to give. Marie’s mouth sets into a hostile line.
The next day he brings Thérèse. She looks up at me in my new rough robes. Puffed with pride, I tell her, “Look into my eyes, little sister. Poor Clares observe close custody of the senses. You will not see them again.” And then I add, “unless you join me here one day.” She steps back, shoulders tensed up, and hands stuffed into her blue coat pockets. “Pray for me, Léonie, please,” she manages to say.
The cold is dreadful. No children—not even ghostly ones—run in these corridors.
The food is meager bread. No talk: a perpetual system of signs I cannot hope to understand. The sisters configure their wishes with sharp-slicing hands. In this mathematical religion, I’m a dunce again.
There is little sleep to be had, but I have none. Or rather, I lapse into a feverish doze in the hard chapel pews. One moment, I think Louise has come to scold me. Another, Mama. Then my darling Hélène, calling out in her own childish pain. The rash on my chest starts to spread up my neck and then visibly onto my face. I cannot stop crying. Mucus and blood stain my
Papa collects me in early December and takes me home to Les Buissonets. Marie has already left for the Carmel. Céline and Thérèse remain. They each hug me, carefully, lest I break. “Your pretty blue eyes,” whispers Thérèse. It’s the kindest thing I’ve ever heard.
Next is Caen. The Visitation, that place of unearned grace. A lighthouse on a storm-tossed, rocky coast. I have found the strength somehow to discern to where a hand is outstretched.
My cell is quite beautiful. Plain and light-filled as I too aspire to be. A basket chair and a soft grey blanket for my bed. From its windows I see the tall spires of the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, St. Stephen’s Church; strong buildings from the centuries when men’s faith was as firm as the earth itself. More immediately, I also see the inner courtyard of the convent, where Christ hangs crucified on the central column, the essence around which my new world turns. Even the light in which He suffers here is softer.
The sisters here are quiet too, of course, but they smile. We look each other in the eyes. I get lost so easily, even when the plan of the convent and cloister is simple enough for a blind child to navigate. Every time I get lost, I am retrieved and kissed better with a kind word and a blessing. My heart expands with hopefulness. I write to Thérèse and send her my poor pieces of wisdom. Sister Marianne finds me a small map of Italy, so I can pray for her progress with Céline and Papa as they go to the Pope. I do not ask them to remember me there, as I am happy to be forgotten.
But I forget too much. I am perpetually lost. I turn into the cloister and cannot find my way. I turn a page in the breviary and do not see the prayers the others say. I lose my footing. I lose my confidence.
I stay in my cell.
I sit on my chair and worry at my needlework. I prick my fingers. I rub blood into my eyes.
I get into my bed and pull the grey blanket up over my nose. In the warmth of its fluffy cocoon, I am forgotten. I fall profoundly asleep.
Papa comes to meet me with a new look of hurt love.
Sister Marianne sits with me in the visiting room while Papa talks to the Mother Prioress. “You have a saint for a father,” says Sister Marianne.
“Before he was a saint, he was a jeweller,” I tell her. “I’m like a broken watch that is returned to him again and again.”
She smiles her little smile and takes my hand. The light washes feebly in through January clouds. “You are a yearning soul,” she says, considering her words. “Your time will come.” Then Papa emerges and extends his arms towards me, feeling my hard, stuck self with his watchmaker’s hands. “You will be able to help Thérèse,” he says. “And she will help me,” I say, honestly, in return.
We form a strange bond, Thérèse and I, during those last months in the world for her. We are both stubborn in our ways, but she has used her will to adopt a stripped-down passivity that I admire. “I could enjoy myself before I step into the enclosure for good,” she explains to me, her golden hair tied back, her full face earnest. “But I want to be a nun even here at Les Buissonets.” I think that this renders us equal in our old childhood home. We are both nuns in limbo: one discarded, the other yet to be formed.
Thérèse seeks to mortify herself through ordering her life by the ticking of a merciless clock. I make myself walk mile after mile in the brisk air of an uncertain spring. Thérèse would see the corncockles and the bluebells. I see the ruts in the roads, the bent stalks of broken weeds, the blighted trees. In the poverty and woundedness of rural Normandy, I sense a need I might meet.
The needs of the poor and dying are simple. I bring food, water. I dress wounds and soothe simple hearts with set prayers. I am clumsy: I drop and forget my supplies. But it does not matter. An hour’s walk brings me to Marthe who does not have long to live. Nor does she have any daughters to tend or trouble her. Her house is a hovel: brick and mud. Inside its one room now serves as her sickbed. The house smells of sickness and blood. I take off my jacket, roll up my dress sleeves and tie on my apron, clean the room and take out the slops. Gently, I change her clothes—better call them rags. I peel them back like skin from rotten fruit. She is barely aware of my presence, but this I am used to. Once she holds my wrist with surprising strength while I wash her with a damp cloth. “Your name,” she says, in a low, firm voice. “I am Léonie,” I reply. She does not have the breath to thank me. I leave her with bread and a blessed candle. I bundle up her stained sheets and dirty clothes and carry them back to Les Buissonets. No one says anything to me about them. Perhaps Elise thinks I have soiled myself.
When I return the next day Marthe is dead, her toothless mouth gaping and her eyes dull slits. The bread is uneaten but her scrawny right arm is stretched out, hand open and extended.
I wash her cold white body again, stuff wads of cotton between her legs, and dress her in the fresh nightgown I had brought her. Some children come in while I work, and I turn to them sharply. “Fetch Monsieur Larond,” I tell them. He will collect the corpse and arrange for a quiet burial. Before I leave her, I push her arms into prayer position on her chest, and wind my black rosary beads around her fingers.
Thérèse leaves for the Carmel. Early in the morning, she disappears into the enclosure like a dream. “She is an angel,” says Céline, trying to comfort our distraught Papa. I watch her go, a small white soul, floating up to heaven from the broken ribs of home. Outside in the Rue Livarot, the air is fresh and brisk, the blue sky heralding another new day.
Sarah Law is a poet and lecturer in London, UK, and has written on Julian of Norwich, Denise Levertov, and the poetry of Thomas Merton. She has five collections of poetry published, the latest of which, Ink’s Wish (Gatehouse Press, 2014), explores the life of medieval visionary Margery Kempe. She is working on her first novel.