It was hot and windy in the garden of Our Lady of the Wheat, but inside the convent it was worse. The walls were stifling, the cells infernos, and Isabel had tossed for hours, unable to find a slim thread of forgetfulness. When she finally gave up on sleep, it was almost time for night prayer anyway and so she put on her cotton shift, the flowing brown habit, even her novice’s cloak, just in case there should be someone else out walking. Though by night the garden was usually forbidden, this had been such a dry and unforgiving spring that no word of reproach was spoken if a Sister was found at the feet of the Blessed Virgin’s shrine asking for her intercession, begging that She save the local farmers by reviving their crops, seeded into dust, the new shoots wilting in the flat alluvial fields.
Just beyond the walls of the convent, the whine and roar of machinery grading the new Interstate bypass had been constant all month. The swish of air brakes, gears grinding, the unaccustomed shouts of men grated on the women’s nerves. Dirt rose, sifted into their linen, feathered over the walls in plumes and spurts. Sand filtered into the rising bread dough, and as the Sisters bit down on tiny particles they closed their eyes and said a quick prayer to keep their tempers.
And yet the presence of the crew was beneficial, useful in some ways. Last week, a representative of the Mother Superior had convinced a couple of workers to lift the statue of Our Lady from Her pedestal and cart Her into town for adoration. Isabel had watched it happen from the small, perfectly square upstairs window of her room. The lineman’s crane lowered its gawky arm over the wall, a man got out, three others helped push, pull and wrestle the stone Virgin into the bucket. She rose, Her sheaf of stiff wheat trembling slightly in Her arms. Her face was bare, cool and white. Whatever marble had been used, there were no veins or mars of mineral spots. As She ascended through the dark shrubs, Isabel had noticed that one of the men wore a blue-and-yellow hat, the same type that her ex-husband, Jack Mauser, used to advertise his construction firm.