Salt and Light

Salt and Light by Gabrielle Hovendon

They both pause and glance at me. When the light began, the nuns brought me into the reverend mother’s office and asked if I wanted to end my retreat. I’d said no, that this was what I signed up for, that I would stay at St. Lucia’s till the end, but only the second part was true. This wasn’t what I signed up for at all. I signed up to cook meals and pray to unfamiliar saints and polish the walnut-grain pews until my arms ached. I signed up to find answers, or questions, or myself. Light figured into none of my plans, but here I remained, unable to decide whether to stay or go.

“I told Sister Mary Gloria it wasn’t God’s will for us to leave,” Sister Marjorie says after a moment, pretending I’m not in the room. “She looked at me like I’d spoken Greek.”

I pick up another onion, begin peeling away the papery brown skin.

“I’m not surprised she wants to leave, frankly,” Sister Marjorie says in a lower voice. “She’s put off final vows how many times?”

Sister Sylvia shakes her head.

“The young ones are almost never serious anymore,” she says. “Makes you wonder what they’re doing here.”

I bring down the paring knife with more force than I intend. It makes a loud thunk on the cutting board and both sisters look up at the noise.

“Excuse me,” I say, gritting my teeth. “Bathroom.”

But instead of turning down the hallway I take the stairs to the third floor. I find Brother Joseph sitting in his office, a converted supply closet into which a tiny brown desk, a faded Army cot, and a pile of cleaning supplies have been jammed. Beneath a bare lightbulb, he’s pinned a list of recent reads to the wall: Herodotus, Cuauhtémoc, De vita Caesarum.

“I need to borrow a muzzle,” I say. “Two, if you’ve got them.”

Brother Joseph raises an eyebrow.

“Fresh out of muzzles,” he says. “What’s wrong?”

“Sister Sylvia,” I say. I sink onto a box of cleaning products. “And Sister Mary Gloria. And everyone, I guess. How do you stay so calm?”

“Prayer,” he says. “And precedent.” He gestures to the columns of books stacked uneasily around his desk. “Every civilization topples at some point. It’s hubris to think ours is special.”

“But you’re still here?” I say, thinking it best not to mention the lucent nights, sleepless at my window, when I’ve observed him slipping away from the convent. “You think our civilization is toppling and you’re not trying to get out?”

Brother Joseph takes a notebook from his desk and opens it.

“‘The city is fallen and I am still alive,’” he reads. “That’s Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor. And this: ‘Now came the dust, though still thinly. I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world.’ That’s Pliny the Younger, writing about Pompeii.”

He closes the notebook.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
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.