A FINE ROUTE TO HEAVEN
Sister Fatima knelt at her single bed and sighed.
Her cell was getting dark, and she wasn't quite sure whether that was because day was fading or her life was slipping away from her.
There wasn't much right with her these days. To start with she had that nagging pain in her chest, the one that sometimes seemed to explode into something dreadful before settling back down to a steady throb. It made the daily round of chores and prayer, more chores and more prayers followed by even more, hard to accomplish, and sometimes, when she was praying in the chapel with her colleagues she could hear their whispered entreaties to their Lord, but her own voice, even her own whisper, was silent. The effort was sometimes beyond her and had she the strength she would self-flagellate when she returned to her cell and her bed out of remorse for her feebleness and failings.
But she lacked that disciplinary strength, so merely knelt and tried to pray, like she was now.
“Dear Lord,” she whispered, and then she coughed, a bloody cough like they all were these days. But she persevered. She had to.
“All my … life...” she breathed, “every hour and every day of my time on Earth, I have obeyed your laws. I was born a virgin and a virgin I still might be had I not been taught to ride a horse on the farm where I was brought up. But mama didn't know, nor did papa, what the stable boy wanted. But I did, and I was too young, much too young, to see what was right and what was wrong, in my foolhardy youth I enjoyed our hours together...”
She coughed again, more blood, more life.
Sister Fatima shook her head.
“But since that yawning youth I have kept the laws of chastity and faith, and hardly any has touched me. Not that I would want one to: the stable boy was all I ever wanted, and … and when … when he died I wept for day after day until it seemed I could have no more tears. But die he did, in the wars that raged across half the world, and I lost him for ever. I swore than I would have no other man in my life, though in truth he was barely a man... and nor was the paper boy...”
She sighed. The dim light that barely made it through the slit of her window was all she had to see by. Her world was almost totally without illumination. It was dark, like it had to be.
“The paper boy... he came every Sunday with the newspapers, a tall blond lad, broad-shouldered and, he said between our kisses, at University, paying his way by doing little jobs, like delivering newspapers to the outlying farms... ours was an outlying farm, and when he came with his sack of news he went with me behind the stables where I'd made love to the stable boy before he died, and there he told me things, good things, things I wanted to hear, like what he thought of me and how he liked my breasts...”
Another cough, more blood. The room, already dark, darkened further. She felt dreadfully weak, but continued with her orisons.
She almost smiled. “If only he could see them now! But he left me for another,” she sighed. “He went to the big University where he found a clever girl and they wed. I saw the notices in the Sunday papers delivered by the new paper boy, but he was too young for me to sojourn with... I told him about the play area I'd had behind the stables, but he was shocked and pedalled away as if all the demons in hell were behind him!
“Then it was that I completely gave up to the pleasures of the flesh, if pleasures they had been, and came here, took my vows and, good Lord, became your bride.”
It felt good to put that last bit into whispered words. It made love, affection, even the physical things that had thrilled her all those years ago, less soiled, somehow more pure, cleaner, sacred.
“It was Brother Anthony who guided me,” she breathed, barely audibly. “He met me in the gardens and he told me with so much conviction it was hard to believe that he was lying, that the Lord had directed him to me and I was to be shown mercy behind the bramble hedge, where the path leads down to the river. And there, well, I might have had misgivings but his touch was gentle and words pure... It was such a shock when Brother Anthony was defrocked for showing mercy to another nun behind that same bramble hedge, and I knew at that moment I should never trust another man.
“Woman, they say, bears the scars of original sin, but man it is who commits it, day in and day out, and woman who suffers...”
This time the bout of coughing shook her frame almost beyond endurance but she hadn't finished her prayers. What was it, she wondered. Were these words her final confession, for if they were there was no priest with his parts erect listening to it and offering forgiveness and understanding, stroking her hair like Father Adam had.
“So you see, dear Lord, I have lived a life of sacrifice and devotion,” she breathed. “Father Adam taught me that when he came during my troubled night visions and lay with me until dawn, to comfort me, to help me sleep... though, being a man, I could tell that his inspiration bordered on the physical. But it would, wouldn't it?
“But all that was years ago. I have served you here, woman and girl, for all my years, and have prayed many times each day, sung choruses glorifying your noble name … and I know, now, that I am approaching my end... can a woman have so much blood in her and can she endure much more pain...”
It was then that the explosion in her chest reached its climax, and her eyes, in their closing, caught sight of the deep blue light that crawled into her cell through the slit window high up on the far wall. Unable to control herself, she fell back and unable to move, she finally lay still.
The light coalesced into a final vision of her Lord, it became a shining example of perfection given form, and that divinity stood at her feet and looked down at her.
“My daughter, you will be a worthy sight in Heaven,” he said in such a beautifully modulated voice her eyelids fluttered one last time so that she could see the speaker. “We've had so many boring angels recently, girls who kept their legs crossed and wore barbed-wire bras together with cast iron undies! No, my daughter, you will be most welcome in my Heaven, most welcome indeed.”
She might have understood, she might have smiled at the sudden dream, but for two hindrances.
Firstly, Sister Fatima was dead, and secondly the silly man was speaking in Hebrew, and she wouldn't have understood a word he was saying even had she been very much alive.
©Peter Rogerson 16.02.14