You grow up and you have to find something to do with your life. Come, tell me what you are interested in, Sister Thérèse said. You must be interested in something.
In the end they pulled some strings, the sisters; there was a family in the country with two small children who needed minding. The sisters asked me if I thought I could do it. I said I thought I could.
I was unsuited to the work, I knew that from the beginning. I had no feeling for children, no tenderness. Nonetheless I was a favorite with them. They could sense my indifference, I suppose. Less suspect than the grasping affections of other grown-ups. Like cats, they knew who to stay away from. Our love very often makes us pathetic to children, to cats. Our desire to be loved. I had no such desire, so I was popular with them. They even made a game of trying to win my favor with little gifts, kindnesses. But I was not deceived; I knew it was a game.
One morning I found a small box outside my bedroom door. Inside was a bird, russet colored, so perfectly intact it might have been only sleeping, except its eyes were wide open, and it didn’t move when I picked it up. I held it in my hands, marveling at how easily I might break its bones.
I kept it hidden in my room for days, until the maid Odile started to complain of a bad smell and I had to get rid of it.
Sometimes when the mother came into the room the little girl turned away from her and buried her face in my skirts. It meant nothing, but it made the mother cross all the same. She was a tall, thin, sickly woman whose pinched face reminded me of a fish’s. Her mouth moved like a fish’s mouth, soundlessly.
At night I dreamed of the sisters, the whitewashed convent walls, the starched white wimples, the dark skirts moving soundlessly on the stone floor. The sisters’ mouths moved soundlessly as they said the rosary. Fragments of it played in my head sometimes, like the lyrics of a song.
There had been another child, but he had died. Not long after I arrived, the mother showed me a lock of his hair. Look at how fair it is, she said, stroking it. It was fair but faded, almost gray, like something you pull out of a drain. Secured at one end by a thin string. Curled in on itself. I was glad when she put it away. My little angel, she murmured.
Sometimes she talks to him, Odile said to me. Pay no attention when she does that.
Until now the gifts had been small—a stone, a ribbon, a four-leaf clover. The bird marked a new stage in our relations. I understood that something was expected of me now, some requital. For days I couldn’t think of anything suitable. Then I heard the mother sobbing in the next room and I thought of the lock of hair, imagined her stroking it feverishly.
You may wonder why I did it. The fact is I’ve never had the same instincts as other people. I was born without instincts. For self-preservation, especially. For other things too. I went into the mother’s room. I found the lock of hair. Easy enough to slip it into my pocket. Easy enough to place it under the little girl’s pillow when no one was looking.
The mother was frantic; she pleaded with Odile to tell her what she had done with it, such a little thing, of no value whatsoever, what could she possibly want with it. Odile insisted tearfully that she had never, would never. The children said nothing, but I felt them beside me, closing ranks.
Weeks passed, and the father returned from a long trip. He was nothing like the mother—short, meaty, dark. The picture of good health. He had a mania for soft-boiled eggs, and mornings were punctuated by the dull tap tap tap of his spoon against the shell. I liked the moment when the shell yielded, with a sort of sigh.
The house was livelier now. The children sang and laughed all day long, playing with the new toys the father had brought them. Even the mother’s spirits were improved: she seemed to forget about the trouble with Odile, whom she had dismissed, and the lock of hair, which she hadn’t recovered.
Sister Thérèse sent me a letter. Dear Marguerite, she said. I hope you are well. Everyone sends their regards. We are all well here, except Sister Adéle’s sciatica is acting up again. Next week we are seeing a specialist in L— who is supposed to be very good. Yours, Sr. Thérèse.
I threw the letter away and didn’t write back.
There was a time when I would have done anything for Sister Thérèse. I would have plucked out my eyes if she asked me to. Here are my eyes, take them, I would have said. And I would have been happy, extraordinarily happy. In fact nothing would have made me happier than to give Sister Thérèse my eyes. But I had sense enough to know she wouldn’t want them. Not yours, not yours, she would have said.
The little girl’s first communion was approaching. The mother had purchased a white dress and veil in town for the occasion, and for weeks it had hung in the little girl’s wardrobe, expectantly. She wasn’t permitted to touch it or try it on, the mother was afraid she’d soil it, but sometimes, in secret, I took it out and laid it on her bed, and we gazed at it together, she in a sort of trance, occasionally venturing to touch the frothy lace—very gently.
She was a pious child; she longed for the day when she, too, would be initiated into the sacred mystery of the Eucharist. I had often observed tears on her face when the rest of us went up to take communion without her.
The long-awaited day arrived. We rose early, the children and I, to take a walk around the lake. The little girl seemed to have aged overnight. She was holding her happiness close to her now: a bright secret. She walked alongside me while her brother ran ahead, chasing squirrels. Neither of us made any mention of the coming event; instead we talked about the weather, it had been a cold month but it was starting to thaw, and soon we might have a picnic.
We went back inside, and the mother and I dressed her, curled her hair, pinned on her veil. The mother even dabbed a bit of rouge on the apples of her cheeks. When we were finished she looked like a bride. A grim little bride. Marvelous, the father said when he saw her coming down the stairs. Clapping his hands. She looked back at him reproachfully, tugging on the tight collar of her dress.
It’s like that sometimes, I wanted to tell her. Sometimes it would be better not to get what we want.
The Father was old. He waddled. He waddled down the line, smelling of old milk, and we opened our mouths to receive the blessed sacrament. Beside me, the little girl closed her eyes. Trying to see beyond. Trying very hard. For a moment I thought, perhaps—but when we got up, she gave me a look of such despair that I knew she had failed.
That night I dreamed of Sister Thérèse. I dreamed she sat at the head of the big table in the refectory, eating soft-boiled eggs and shorn braids of hair.
I knew what I had to do. I went into the children’s room. They were asleep. The lock of hair was in the little girl’s bedside table, just where I had known it would be. I nudged her awake and bid her follow me to the kitchen. She did so silently, obediently, rubbing the sleep away from her eyes. She sat down at the table as I looked for flour, sugar, eggs. Watched as I rolled out the dough, the way the sisters had taught me, long ago. The finishing touch was the lock of hair: placed in the center of the cake like a little king. We sat in silence as it baked in the oven; when it was finished I took it out and then, without waiting for it to cool, the little girl devoured it, ravenously.
The mother found us there the next morning, sleeping with our heads on the table, flour dusting our noses. She clapped once, sharply, waking us up. The little girl drowsily lifted her head from the table and said she was going to be sick; no sooner had she said it than the lock of hair came tumbling out of her mouth. It lay there on the table, wet and gray, flecked with bits of cake. We all stared at it. What is this, the mother cried. What is this. What have you done. The little girl smiled at her, neatly wiped her mouth.
I returned to the sisters soon after that. What are we going to do with you, Sister Thérèse said despairingly. She said they would have to discuss it among themselves. In the meantime I was tasked with helping to clean the refectory, the chapel, the sacristy.
In the refectory there was a painting I had always liked, a fresco. The Assumption of Mary. I liked to look up at it as I washed the stone floor, my hands and knees burning from the cold and the lye. Mary stood in a burnished sky on a roiling heap of cherubim, her blue and red robes flapping around her, her hands raised in benediction or supplication, her eyes wide and doleful. Her expression seemed to say she hadn’t asked for any of this, she would rather be sleeping in the earth, but she would go along with it if that was what God wanted. What are we going to do with you, Sister Thérèse said, and I thought of Mary, rising through the air.
© Lauren Hooker
[This piece was selected by Barbara Barrow. Read Lauren’s interview]