Salt and Light

Salt and Light by Gabrielle Hovendon

“No,” I say. “I can’t.”

She stares at me, her jaw working furiously, then storms downstairs. I hear her stomping down the stairs and imagine her giving the finger to my room as she passes.

In a few minutes, I will follow her inside. Downstairs, the nuns will be finishing their chores. The reverend mother will be helping Father Paul with his dinner, and Brother Joseph will be holed away in his tiny makeshift room, formerly the janitor’s closet, with his books. Sister Mary Gloria will pace the chapel until she calms down. Everything will stay exactly the same, our lives cupped and floating in this deadly luminosity.

The next day, I find my name on the cooking roster with Sister Sylvia and Sister Marjorie. Before the light, the convent ran a soup kitchen out of its basement, and now we cook food for thirty on ranges meant to feed three hundred. All our pots and pans are comically outsized.

For lunch it’s bean salad and canned brown bread, the menu largely determined by what’s left in the pantry. Other days have been tuna salad, pasta salad, and canned fruit salad.

If I survive this light, I’ll never eat salad again.

Today I dice wilted onions beside Sister Sylvia in silence. She’s one of the strong ones, not like Sister Immaculada, who weeps silent tears during chapel every morning, or Sister Agatha, who started to carve Psalm 137 in her arm last week and had to be pinned to her bed with heavy sedatives.

I try to turn on the stove to sauté the onions, but nothing happens. We’ve been living without electricity for the past few weeks, but this is new.

“I think it’s broken,” I say, stepping back. “Maybe the pilot light’s out?”

“O queen, how is your heart? How you have become? Your city has become a strange city, now how do you exist? Your house has turned to tears, how is your heart?”

Sister Sylvia brushes past me and starts fiddling with a piece of wire. In a minute it’s good as new. These nuns are the missing link between us and the pioneers, I think. Like cockroaches, they could survive a nuclear attack, and they could do it with their wimples in place. They gather acorns from the city park and make flour in the coffee grinder; they pick dandelion greens and know all the edible mushrooms; they boil water in the reverend mother’s bathtub and rig up a generator from an old car so we can run the convent’s geriatric washing machine on Saturdays.

I keep dicing. Across the kitchen, Sister Sylvia is talking about Sister Mary Gloria.

“She’s been asking everyone on the second floor,” she says to Sister Marjorie. “I’ve half a mind to tell the reverend mother.”

“Has anyone agreed to go with her?” Sister Marjorie asks.

“Who would be that foolish?”

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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.