Obscurity, The Twenty-Sixth Chapter
In which the abbess has a premonition.
We wonder if there has ever been a moment when the reader has noticed something rather peculiar—a person standing quite near, perhaps, or a hand placed upon a shoulder—only to realize in the next moment that nothing was there. That, by some trick of the imagination, the reader was startled into thinking someone else was with them, when on second glance, no one was.
These occurrences happen to all of us, and yet, despite their regularity, we bat them away, convinced that what we see with our eyes is more reliable than what we see with our minds. Like the moment just after one wakes from a dream, we quickly shake the visions from our heads, believing them the imaginings of an overactive mind, our five senses providing the only information that can be trusted.
And yet, there is another sense—one that cannot be seen and touched and felt and tasted, and yet for all those things cannot be explained. Do we not feel a loved one’s touch on our cheeks after they have left us? Do we not have a premonition that something will occur before it does? Do we not live moments that we have clearly lived before? And do we not deny ourselves those mysteries all the same? A wishful thought, we think. A coincidence. Déjà vu.
The abbess, though she once did much the same, could no longer afford such thinking. Her eyes were aged and weathered and ceased to be as useful as they once were, but though she had become quite blind by all literal connotations of the word, by another she was able to see more clearly than she had since she was a child—that being, of course, when all of us see most clearly.
As children we are not encumbered by the sensibilities of adults. We are not expected to look at the unexplained and attempt to explain it. The abbess was no exception. Her father passed away when she was young and so she had grown up with her mother and her grandmother, a small trilogy of women who had been forced to live without the rationalities of a father but all the mysticalities of a mother. In this way, their rural lives were imbibed with a certain magic. An inherent belief that life was so much more than could be seen with the eyes and that, in fact, it could only be felt—like the breath of the wind.
Tucked away in a small corner of France, they lived in a Provencal house amidst the hills, where vines grew up the walls and flowers blossomed around them. Every day, the women followed a stone path out to the grotto, a patch of wild roses that grew amidst the caves where the girl’s father had been buried. They prayed the rosary before his tomb and crossed themselves in his memory, and then they shared a picnic lunch amidst the thorns, talking with the young abbess’ father as though he were a party to it all.
They were poor but they were happy, and though the girl’s father could no longer provide for them the blessings of an income, he always remained in their hearts, providing the three with every happiness they could need to be nourished and sustained. He spoke to them with the spring rains, told them he loved them with the summer sun, and held them in his arms with the taste of wild raspberries on their tongues.
He blessed them with a garden and helped them harvest the lot into their aprons, and when the summer’s bounty became overflowing with fruit, he helped them preserve it in jars of glass, each one sealed with a kiss and a prayer so that it might sustain them during the long winter months. In the winter he helped them build fires that billowed plumes of smoke into the chilled air and he tucked them into wool blankets where they drank red wine seasoned with pomegranate seeds—small tokens of his affection adrift in their glasses.
One day, when the girl was seven years of age, she sat before her father’s tomb alone, a tear streaming down her face that she might never again be held in his embrace—at least not in the way she once had. Just as she spoke his name out loud, telling him a story of how greatly she missed him, she looked up from her tears and was startled to discover a woman picking roses from the briars before her.
“Mon dieu,” the young girl cried as she stood, frightened that the woman might be stealing her father’s roses.
The woman turned to face the girl. She was striking, her black gown more devastatingly beautiful than the girl had ever seen worn at the parish church. Above her head, the sun shone so brightly that the girl had to squint her eyes shut to protect them from the light. Indeed, the girl could not make out the woman’s face for the light that bathed her so gloriously in its most heavenly rays.
“Pardonne-moi,” the woman said, kneeling so that the girl might at last see her face. Her veil was lifted, her skin pale and ethereal, and the girl could see that the woman was in mourning, her eyes weeping tears that fell from her cheeks and into her prayerful hands. They looked to the girl like small rivers—as though the woman had sprung them into being, creating waters so deep they might one day reach the ocean, sweeping the rest of her sorrows out to the sea.
Her son had died, the woman explained, and she had seen those beautiful roses and only thought they would be perfect to place upon his grave. A rose for each of his hands, she had thought, and one for each of his feet so that he might be planted within the earth as a flower, his body becoming roots that would grow strong in the soil and his blood the life-giving waters that nourished it.
So taken was the girl with this story, this dream, that she might one day fall into the earth as one falls into a bed of flowers, that she gave the woman every flower in the grotto so that the woman’s son might sleep as a fairy does nestled in a wood, the most cherished babe to bless the earth.
“Merci,” the woman replied for the blessing, her tears shimmering from her cheeks as rivers did when they dried, sparkling from her skin like gold. “Please, take my veil for my gratitude.”
When the woman left, the young girl held the veil in her hands, and wondered how the woman came to be present in a grotto so far from the nearest road. Then she wondered what funeral she would attend, when she had not heard a bell from the parish church that day. As she stood in the grotto, pondering these mysteries in her heart, the sun touched her face just so and she felt as though a memory had suddenly occurred to her, dislodged from the place in their hearts that only small children can access.
The apparition stayed with the girl all her life, though her memory of it changed as she grew. By the time she had become a fine young woman, blessed with all the graces of her mother and her grandmother, she could no longer ascertain whether the woman had even been real in the first place, or whether she had only been imagined. All proof of the occasion was lost—she must have misplaced the veil in her youth, never to find it again, if she ever held it at all.
No matter what had occurred on that day, the girl knew it was meant for her to be a sign. Divine Providence wanted her to take the veil. Her mother requested only that she take some time for introspection before making so permanent a decision, though the girl knew her mother really hoped she might meet a man and discover the kind of love her mother had enjoyed with her father.
The girl did come to find those things, but in the arms of her Savior. She spoke to Him with great passion, wrote Him letters in her journal every evening, heard his voice in every sentence spoken to her, until at last, the magic of her youth was lost. When she could no longer find His name on the wind, His breath on her cheek, His voice in the dark, she turned where most adults do: to theology—to finding proof that her childhood whims were more than the fancies of a child, but the eternal truth of a great Spirit. She studied the scriptures and the liturgy, said the prayers and the hours, took her vows.
Alas, that had been a restless existence. By the time she had reached old age, the abbess had grown tired of her studies—of trying so hard to believe. In truth, she tired of searching the scriptures for something she always knew in her heart. It was a blessing to her when, at last, in her old age, her senses started to decline and she was able to once more see the Divine without attempting to make sense of it. To once again feel the touch of her Savior’s hand upon her cheek.
At last, she was able to enjoy the Bridegroom she had long ago married in her heart—His lips tender upon her forehead, His fingers caressing her hair as she slept. In her waking life, she felt His hand in hers as she walked through the convent and His arms encircled about her waist when she knelt in the chapel. During mass, she would lean her head upon His shoulder, and when she took His body in her mouth during the eucharist, she did so with a lover’s touch. Savoring the taste of Him with perfect happiness.
One day, when she was leaving the chapel, the abbess felt the Lord’s touch at her arm and stopped in front of the orphans’ classroom. At first glance, she thought she saw the woman from the grotto. But then in the next moment her face was transfigured, and the abbess saw it was only the widow, a sunbeam fallen across her face as she held a small child in her arms.
She rocked the babe gently, her black veil falling from her hair. The elaborate bun at the nape of her neck was pinned with pearls and her neck adorned with most perfectly cut ruby, suspended between her collar bones as though it had been made for her neck alone. Her gown was astonishing, of red velvet that held her closely as though she were the gown’s most beloved person to adorn. Pearls drew around her waist and encircled her bodice.
The way she held her fingers, just so, was as a painting, stunning for its elaborate detail. The graceful way she held her arms, the adoration that could be seen in her face as she looked upon the child. The babe smiled as all babies do, wiggling within the white silk that cocooned him, draping elegantly to the floor in a most beautiful array of light. It was as though she had been placed that way, with her gown dripping to the floor and the child placed in her arms so as not to disturb it, the perfect portrait of love and affection.
The abbess was made ecstatic by the image—for it appeared to her a living portrait of the woman she had once met in the grotto. After a long moment of reflection, the abbess suddenly felt that something was amiss—that the Lord was signaling to her once again.
Quitting herself of the classroom, the abbess walked to the third Marie’s cell. It was too dark to be seen with her eyes and so she traced her fingers along the desk, across her dresser, and into the folds of her bed. There was not a relic left of Marie’s presence in the convent, save her veil atop the ruffled sheets—a veil much more intricate than those typically worn by the order, and one the abbess believed she had seen once before.
In the darkness of the night, the abbess wondered where the third of the Maries had gone, and for what cause her Lord had led her to such a discovery.
We next read The Twenty-Seventh Chapter, in which the mercenary discovers a rather unsettling scene.