Mary waits anxiously at the door. If you get summoned to Mother Superior’s office, you are in deep trouble, indeed. She’s tried to remember if she’d forgotten anything, but no: she’s made the beds, cleaned the kitchen, washed the dishes, swept the dormitories…
The stern voice calls her in. Mother Superior should have been a sergeant-major, Mary thinks; with that commanding voice she could even have been a general. Carefully turning the knob, she opens the door to the austere office, which may as well have been a cell in prison. Except for the single bookshelf and the tiny table, the office resembles the nun in many ways – completely devoid personality.
“Come here,you.” There’s no way of telling what this is all about. The voice conveys neither affection nor dislike – it simply serves to transfer the order.
Mary slinks over to the table. There’s no visitor’s chair, so she remains standing. Instantly the fear she had of her father floods her mind – memories buried away so deep and for so long, relive when she faces the unforgiving face of Mother Superior.
“How long have you been here?”
It’s a stupid question, a leading question; Mother Superior didn’t have to call her to find that out. She’s trying to justify something – but what? The records are in the store room next door, aren’t they?
“About three years, Sister.” Timid … waiting for whatever is to follow.
“Three years, two months and five days; to be more accurate.” The pale blue eyes of the nun run over her simple frock – the apprentice frock she’s been wearing every day. “So by this time you should know the rules.”
The statement hangs in the air. Sure, she knows the rules – but what on earth is this all about?
“A letter arrived for you.” Now Mary can’t hide her surprise. A letter? From whom? The nun continues in a threatening tone: “And as is the custom, I’ve read it. I must say I’m bitterly disappointed.”
“A-a-a letter? For me? I don’t understand, Sister.”
“Yes, for you.” It is more of an accusation than an affirmation. “And you know – you know – you are not allowed to have relationships with men.” Now her voice has a new edge – a biting edge of disapproval. “I want you to know I don’t approve of the contents of the letter, so I shall not hand it over to you. I think it’s despicable.”
“But Sister, I have no relationships with men. Ever since I came here, I’ve done my duties with dedication and diligence. You’ll remember that I told you I have no further interest in men, Sister, and that’s true. I’ve given my life to the Church, and that’s the way it is.” It’s always dangerous to argue with this formidable woman, but Mary can’t just let this go – she hasn’t done anything wrong.
“Men wanting to make contact with my postulants have to make an appointment with me, personally. I shall not tolerate any underhand doings in this convent, do you understand? No sneaking behind my back. No climbing from windows. No false excuses.” The words follow each other is such a fast staccato that the nun runs out of breath for a second. Mary waits. There’s nothing else to do. “How must I know what the man’s intentions are? You tell me, come on! Don’t just stand there…”
“I –I honestly don’t know what this is all about, Sister. Really. I’ll swear to it…”
“Now don’t you go about swearing things you have no control over. I know you young girls. I was once young, too. I know the weakness of the flesh and how men exploit it. And you … you should know all about it, young lady. I’ve had a look at your background.” She sniffs loudly, as if something is rotting away somewhere. “Most unsavoury, I must say. Not exactly a clean sheet, as I see it.”
“ I’ve never denied my past, Sister. Never! I’ve come here because of my mistakes. I made it abundantly clear that I wanted to make up for the mistakes in my past – not only with my father, but later an also with the band … and the only man that ever cared for me.” She’s tried so hard to immerse herself in her work and her studies, she almost managed to get through entire days without thinking of the bad – and the good – in her previous life. And now Mother Superior, with her holier-than-thou attitude a self-righteous demeanour, calls her in to accuse her of …what? That some lunatic wrote her a letter? The members of the band may be mad enough to do a stupid thing like that. Her father, even, in his delusion, might have done something rash. With emotion spilling over in her trembling voice, she tries to continue: “Whatever you think, I’m trying. Really trying…”
Mother Superior holds up a hand, like a traffic cop would. “Oh shut your trap, you miserable sod! Do you think I believe you?” She waves a piece of paper in the air. “This is a letter from some freak who calls himself Boggel. Don’t think I can’t picture what a sick, perverted man would mean by calling himself a hunchback! It has sexual overtones written all over that name, and he wants to ‘talk’ with you. Talk? Who does he think he’s bluffing? Can you imagine the warped mind that wrote this? He wants to see you, that’s what he says here. I can tell you what that means. I think he wants to see … your body, naked! Sick! How horrible!” The nun takes a deep breath, gathers her thoughts, and goes on in the same harsh tone. “I can tell you he’s some crazy who’s taking a chance to date a would-be nun, a real virgin – and I’m happy to throw it away. But … don’t you think I’m going to forget about this sordid affair. You’ll see.” She crumples the letter into a ball before using it to wipe the spittle from her chin. “You’re dismissed. Go now. Go to your room and stay there!” She waves an impatient hand in Mary’s direction. “Go on. Shoo! Out! I have more important things to do…”
Afterwards, should you ask Mary what happened next, she’d just shake her head and mumble something about the senior sister feeling sorry for her and handing over the letter. That is not quite true. When the nun dismissed her like that, Mary had a strange flashback to her father. Always … afterwards, that is … he’d tell her to go to her room. Tell her to get out of his sight, because she’s dirty and he doesn’t want to see her anymore. He’d say other things as well, bad things a father should never tell a daughter; horrible things that made her feel as if everything was her fault, her doing, her bad influence. And when that impatient hand waved her away, something inside the placid, sad girl with all the good intentions, snapped. It snapped so loud, she was sure the others n the convent must have heard it.
But she was wrong: they didn’t hear that snap. They heard an unearthly scream and the table crashing. When the other nuns stormed into the office, Mother Superior was already blue in her face. It took three of the biggest nuns to wrench Mary’s hands from the neck of the helpless sister. It is said Mother Superior lost her voice that day. The only way she can communicate these days, is with a hoarse whisper.
When they locked Mary Mitchell in the solitary confinement cell that night, the other sisters were too scared to ask her to return the letter. And when the Monseigneur suggested Mary Mitchell should rather leave the convent, all the nuns were there to say goodbye to the woman they always admired for her quiet serenity. One of them said it must have been a demon that caused the ruckus – another said no, it’s the quiet ones who sometimes harbour pent-up aggression.
They were all wrong. When Mary walked out of those high, wrought iron gates, she was smiling. Possessed people don’t smile like that. It’s a lovely smile of anticipation. You can call it a smile of victory. Or release. It’s hard to tell the difference.