Salt and Light

Salt and Light by Gabrielle Hovendon

“What’s the real question here, Nina?” he asks. “What’s on your mind?”

But I don’t know. I don’t know the question, I don’t know the answer, I don’t even know why I’m talking to him about this. I want to find wisdom in his dead kingdoms, but it’s like searching for meaning in the hollow ringing of a shell.

Brother Joseph taps his notebook against his knee.

“My advice? Find something necessary to you,” he says. “Something that occupies your being.”

I rise from the box of cleaning supplies. What occupies me? Do I even want to be occupied?

“I don’t know what’s necessary,” I say.

“I’ll pray for you,” he calls, but I’m already heading down the hall. Back to the kitchen, to apologize to Sister Sylvia and Sister Marjorie. Back to my safe routine.

Outside, the light is coming in minarets and birch trees and space needles.

That night, I lie in bed and watch filaments of light scribble across the ceiling. I try to imagine myself in another life. I could have been a beekeeper. An investment banker. A dermatologist. I could have been someone who lived to hang glide, to horseback ride, to bake bread or raise children. But everything I come up with sounds like a nametag, a placeholder, nothing necessary or true.

Then I notice the light coming through my window: not the deadly kind but weak, flickering, the pre-destruction variety.

I get to my knees and peer out at the street below. It’s someone with a flashlight, someone who’s trying to leave without being seen.

It’s Sister Mary Gloria.

I jump out of bed and pull on my clothes. Quickly, without making any noise, I hurry downstairs, past the rooms of the sleeping nuns, past the dim red candlelight that perpetually illuminates the chapel. When I get outside, I’m just in time to see the beam of the flashlight disappear around the corner.

I slip out the side gate and follow Sister Mary Gloria down the street, past the prep school, past the former site of the kebab cart, past the corner where a fire hydrant arced up silent and seraphic last week. After a few minutes, I see someone emerge from a side street and join her: Brother Joseph, dressed all in black.

It must be close to midnight, but there are dozens of other people out on the streets, people dressed up and walking in groups like they’re coming back from restaurants or movie theaters, like they’re still leading normal lives. It strikes me that people are still living in this city, not just inhabiting it but really living, and it comes as a shock. What have they been doing these last forty days? What have I been doing?

Another block. Another. I give up trying to recognize where we are and focus instead on the light, how it washes the streets in a faint glow. It’s beautiful, like the inside of a snowstorm, and I almost think I could get used to this destruction.

We walk for at least half an hour. I’m ready to turn around when Sister Mary Gloria and Brother Joseph veer to the right. They enter a low building, one whose windows throb with noise.

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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.