Salt and Light

Salt and Light by Gabrielle Hovendon

Sister Mary Gloria pulls at her rosary beads, trying to pick apart the waxy string.

“We have a plan,” she says suddenly. “Me and some of the others. We’re going to leave and head south along the highway. We think we can find a place with no light.”

I groan. For nearly two weeks she’s been trying to convince me to flee the city with her, and for nearly two weeks I’ve been saying no. I’ve finally found a place where I don’t have to have answers, where I can move my lips and look like I’m praying and even the little nagging voice in my head doesn’t bother me.

“The reverend mother,” I remind her, “has forbidden you to leave.”

“She’s not thinking straight,” Sister Mary Gloria says. “And it’s not the same for you. You can leave any time you want.”

I don’t know what to say to this, so I change the subject. I point out that Brother Joseph isn’t leaving. I don’t mention what else I know, that he’s been sneaking out at night and not returning till lauds.

“Brother Joseph is cracked,” she says. “What kind of monk leaves his order and comes to work as a handyman? Sister Doris, Sister Marjorie, Sister Mary Benedict – they all want to come with me. Why not you?”

I press my lips together and say nothing. I want to tell her that here there’s security in predictability, even if those predictions point to disaster. I want to tell her that some days the light feels like a relief, that there’s no longer any pressure to become someone, to do something with myself. I’m satisfied with what I have: my little room at the top of the stairs, my comfortable agnosticism, my daily chores.

“Nina, you have to do something. We’re going to die if we stay here.”

“You don’t know that,” I say, but there’s no conviction in my voice. Fleeing, staying – it all seems equally hopeless.

Out where the racetrack used to be, a greasy beam of light suddenly smears the sky. A garage, maybe, or a junkyard. We stand in silence for a minute, contemplating. Twelve.

“It’s not stopping,” Sister Mary Gloria says. “It’s only going to get worse. The reverend mother won’t change her mind, and we’ll all die here.”

Without warning, the rosary snaps in her hand and a decade of plastic beads spatters onto the ground. She looks down as if she’s surprised to find the string in her hand, surprised to find she has hands at all. She jerks her wrist back to fling the rosary off the roof, but then she lets it slip between her fingers and drop to the ground.

“Come with me,” she says, and there’s a new tone of pleading in her voice. “We’ll get out of here, we’ll find somewhere where there’s no light.”

I stare out at the ravaged skyline. I look down at the ground and count the spilt beads. Eight, nine, ten.

“We can do it this week,” she says. She’s almost crying. “The others are ready. We can do it tonight.”

I know she’s lying, that she hasn’t really persuaded anyone else.

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A graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, Gabrielle Hovendon has taught in New York, Ohio, and Spain. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Cincinnati Review, Southwest Review, Redivider, Tupelo Quarterly, and Ninth Letter. She lives and teaches in Athens, Georgia.