She stood at the bottom of a long, sloped driveway. On her right was a large wooden letterbox and to her left was a marble statue of the Madonna and child. The baby had healthy rolls of fat and an old wise face. The virgin looked serene. The convent was beyond the statue, at the top of the hill. In the glare from the sun, it looked like a golden slab of sandstone. She could see a covered balcony with large arches, rows of small windows, black iron gates at the front. Nothing else around but clouds, some trees, and large rocks that jutted out from the side of the mountain. Silence except for a few crows. The sun was in the middle of the sky. The air was thick and oppressive. As she began to walk up the driveway, her stomach gurgled and her head felt light. Halfway up the hill she stopped to vomit. When she reached the gates, she collapsed. Some of the nuns were outside gardening. What they saw was this: a squat-looking girl with a tablecloth pinned to her head, kneeling at the gates, then falling on her face.
There she is: Dolores. Newly named. Sitting at the kitchen table inside the convent, conscious of how bad she must smell. Her armpits are wet. Her mouth is dry. The nuns gather around her. Without saying a word, one of them places a glass of water in front of her. Dolores drains it quickly. The nun picks up the glass, slowly, and fills it once more. Dolores drinks. The water runs out the side of the glass and down her neck.
Later, that same nun leads Dolores to the chapel – a small room with stained-glass windows and wax on the floor. The nun takes both of her hands and holds them in her own. Her skin feels cold. Her voice is soft. At times, she slips into dialect. She motions for Dolores to kneel. Whenever the nun prays, Dolores bows her head and prays too. Whenever the nun crosses herself, Dolores crosses herself. After the nun has repeated the same phrase several times, slowly, pleadingly, and looks into her eyes, Dolores cannot help but respond by nodding solemnly. The nun is small and frail. She looks like a child in an old woman’s body. She kisses Dolores’ hands. Her face cracks into a large smile.
After their conversation, the nun walks with Dolores, arm in arm, around the convent and up the stairs to a long and narrow room on the second floor. There are twelve single beds. Twelve small bedside tables. Twelve chests. She is told to sleep. One of the nuns closes the blinds. The walls are rock. The room is cool. Dolores closes her eyes.
Bells ring in the background of her dreams. When she wakes, it’s the middle of the night, dark except for a slither of light on the wall from the moon. Her eyes adjust. There are sleeping bodies all around her. Some of the nuns are snoring. She studies the outline of their bodies, the different colours of their hair. White, brown, red, speckled black and grey. She feels something heavy at the end of the bed, resting on her feet. Someone has left a pile of clothes. Long-sleeved cotton shirts and two loose smocks. One woollen jumper. Some kind of cape. A veil. Stockings, socks, and underwear. She buries her nose in the clothing. It smells of mothballs, stale soap, and onions. She remembers the backpack she arrived with and gets up to look for it.
Someone has placed it on the chest at the end of her bed. There are things missing – her clothes, her passport. She climbs back into bed and closes her eyes.
The nuns never wash themselves. That’s one of the first things she notices. They have yellow-green gunk in the corners of their eyes, their tongues are brownish-pink, and there are flakes of dead skin on their noses. Their breath is bad. They have wild hairs that curl at the bottom of their chins. Dolores doesn’t look at the nuns directly. She keeps her head down and her eyes lowered. The only time she can look closely at their faces is during prayer in the chapel or at night while they sleep. In the mornings, the nuns kneel in the chapel, the first light enters the room, and Dolores looks around at their scrunched-up faces, deep in thought.
By now, she knows that the nun who spoke to her in dialect, inside the chapel, is the mother superior and must be obeyed. To eat something, she must ask the mother. To write a letter, drink an extra glass of water, or collect the eggs from the garden – the mother must give permission. But the mother is kind. She often gives permission with a small nod and a smile. And Dolores spends most of her time with the mother – they study the Bible together for two hours each day, sitting side by side at an old wooden desk in the study room. At the end of each session, the mother takes Dolores’ hands, as she did that first day, and holds them close to her heart. She repeats certain phrases. Here are the words she most often says: sin, hell, redemption, saved, sister. And then: Do you understand? Dolores always nods solemnly, even if she doesn’t.
What does the mother superior know about her? Her name, age, and place of birth.
This, she must know from Dolores’ passport, which the mother says she has locked in her office, for safekeeping. Everyone in the convent still calls her Dolores. So why does it sound so different in the mouth of the mother superior? When the mother superior says her name, it sounds as though it were travelling down a slide. Do-lor-es, the mother says, with the es finishing nice and low.
At the convent, among the group of nuns, there are just three who are yet to take their first vows. Three who wear the same button-up blouse and loose brown smock as Dolores. Battered leather shoes and a light blue veil. Two are tall and one is short. One has green eyes and dimpled cheeks. One has an extra-large tooth that hangs outside of her lip. One has a large, round, and translucent face, like the moon. They are always together. They walk through the corridors of the convent in a triangular shape – one at the front and two at the back – their long smocks swishing. And when they say her name, they do so in unison, lingering on the middle syllable each time. Do-lorrr-es, they say.
On the rare occasion that Dolores encounters one of them alone, everything about them changes: their walk, their posture, even their voices. The beautiful one chews her nails down to stubs. Sometimes, the moonfaced one secretly smiles at Dolores. It’s the hang-tooth one that she must watch. It’s the hang-tooth one that she finds one night, while it’s still dark and everyone is asleep, rummaging through the chest that sits at the bottom of her bed. Dolores wakes from the sound and sits up slowly. The girl is kneeling on the floor with her head inside the chest. She looks up and their eyes meet. For a moment, the hang-toothed girl looks shocked but then her face twists into a snarl. She spits, then walks back to her bed.
Dolores pulls the covers up to her neck and watches the slither of light from the moon edge across the wall. She waits to hear the sound of the morning bells. Dolores prays. Her prayers are different to the ones she says throughout the day, in the chapel, and in unison with the other nuns. Those prayers are for the world. But alone, in bed, in the shadowy night while the other nuns sleep, Dolores can privately ask for what she wants. She knows no one else is listening. Her mother once told her that prayers are wishes. In bed, at the convent, Dolores makes private wishes. After each prayer, she pre-emptively thanks the Lord for granting her wish. Only then does she fall asleep.
In August, Dolores adjusts to the rhythm of the days at the convent. She knows, only from the calendar that hangs on the wall in the corner of the kitchen, that eight weeks have passed since she was carried in through the iron gates.
When the bells ring at five-thirty in the morning, everyone wakes, dresses, and makes their way to chapel for morning prayer. At six-thirty, they eat breakfast: bread, tomatoes, and if it’s available from the garden, fruit. Afterwards they make their beds and clean the bathrooms. At eight, they meet again for prayer. At nine, Dolores meets the mother superior in the study room for lessons. At eleven, she joins the others in their chores. They tend the vegetable garden. They dust the chapel. They mop the dining-room floor. Sometimes, they knit or weave baskets. There are clothes to be washed and mended. Once a month, on a Thursday, the mother unlocks the gates and six of the strongest nuns go down to the bottom of the driveway with a wheelbarrow. They collect donations from the letterbox: canned food, toilet paper, batteries, soap, sewing materials. At one, they eat lunch (soup or stew, bread). At two-thirty, they pray together in the chapel. From three to five they may do what they please but they must not leave the sitting room. At six, it’s holy mass. At seven-thirty, they eat dinner (variations of potato and corn dishes, and, on special occasions, canned fish). At nine, they pray together once more before bed. At nine-thirty, the lights go out.
There is the problem of food – of how little the nuns are expected to eat. How quietly they finish their meals. In the dining room, Dolores watches the way that the nuns bring their spoons to their mouths in slow motion. How they seem to chew the soup as if it were a piece of meat. The mother has told Dolores to try holding the soup in her mouth for twenty seconds before swallowing. All throughout the day, her stomach quivers. Her head feels light. She is constantly thirsty and she craves something sweet.
The nuns only shower on Saturdays. By the end of summer, the room where Dolores sleeps smells of sweat. Nausea comes to Dolores in the mornings and in the kitchen when it’s her turn to cook. She has woken up moments before the morning bells ring to be sick in the toilet on three occasions. She runs the taps to muffle the sound.
The days of the week blur. Time, at the convent, is measured by the bells that ring throughout the day, telling the nuns to move on to the next task. At the convent, the mother encourages the nuns to be alone with God. But physically they are never alone. Every chore is assigned in groups of two or more. The two hours of allocated free time in the afternoon is for sitting together. For sewing, for reading certain books, and for contemplation.
The nuns aren’t allowed to go for walks. This was something Dolores learnt quickly. One afternoon, not long after she first arrived, she left the sitting room and went wandering up the hill behind the convent. She thought she might climb to the top and look out over the valley. The hill was steep – all wild shrubbery and rocks. Sticks poked at her ankles. Soon she was on her hands and knees, clawing her way to the top. Little paper-like cuts on her hands. It felt good. Her skin stained with dirt and spots of dried blood on the palms of her hands. The thrill of possibly falling. She was halfway up when she heard the bells. When they didn’t stop, she turned and sat on the hill, facing the convent below. In the distance, she saw a group of nuns running towards her with their arms flailing above their heads. She waved back but the nuns kept running. Soon, the bells abruptly stopped and it was completely silent. As the nuns got closer, Dolores noticed that they made no noise. They waved their arms but they did not yell. They didn’t make a peep at all but their faces, even from across the landscape, seemed to scream: Emergency!
From certain windows, and from the wide balcony that runs along one side of the convent, Dolores can see a mountain in the distance. She knows the ocean is on the other side. On particularly clear days, Dolores has seen people jump from that mountain. Hang gliders. They appear like large fluorescent birds on the horizon. They leap, and in those first few moments in the air, Dolores waits for them to drop. She imagines them plummeting to the ground. But they never do. They freeze in the air, suspended, then slowly make their way down.
One afternoon, at the end of August, Dolores is outside gardening when she notices a man standing on the other side of the iron gates and feels her stomach drop. Her hands are covered in compost. She wipes her smock, stands, and squints. The man in the distance wears dark robes. One by one, the other nuns in the garden turn to face him. Then, the rhythmic jangling of the mother superior’s keys, bouncing on the chain around her neck as she walks towards the gates. The moonfaced sister is the only one still crouching in the garden bed, her arms elbow deep in soil. She whispers: The bishop. The mother unlocks the gates. Dolores kneels. Begins to turn the soil with her hands. The jangling of the keys once more and then the sound of crunching footsteps. In the corner of her eye, Dolores can see the mother superior’s shoes – which must have been black once but are now greyish blue – and the bishop’s shiny patent leather ones, walking towards her. They stop. She keeps her eyes on the mother’s shoes. They look so small. They are bound together by black tape at the toe. Do-lor-es, the mother says and Dolores tilts her face towards the sun. There he is, the bishop. Looking down at Dolores in the garden bed. He has a face like wet lettuce. He wears round, tinted glasses that obscure his eyes. Child, the bishop says, and then something about Dolores arriving all the way from the tropics. Dolores nods. All Dolores ever does is nod. She notices that his hands, which are clasped together and resting on his belly, are shaking.
That night, hours after the lights have gone out, Dolores wakes up covered in sweat.
Heat is radiating off her body. In the bathroom, she runs the taps and quickly vomits. She pours cold water down her back. When she returns to the room, she notices that the moonfaced sister isn’t in her bed. She tries to sleep but there is movement all around her. Rustling covers, and every so often the groan of mattress springs. When she does fall asleep, Dolores hears the morning bells ring. And as before, the sound enters into her dream.
The above is an excerpt from Dolores, by Lauren Aimee Curtis, forthcoming from Orion.
Image © Christof Timmermann