Salt and Light

Salt and Light by Gabrielle Hovendon

But I don’t. Whoever is needed to inhabit a new world, whoever should populate unborn lightless cities, it isn’t me. It’s people like Sister Mary Gloria that the world needs, people who are angry and unafraid, people who can commit to the unknown.

I stand there and say nothing, long enough for the silence to speak for me. Sister Mary Gloria turns back to the bags and boxes and car batteries. She does not say goodbye.

On the way back to the convent, Brother Joseph and I round a corner and see light moving away down the street, inexorable as a glacier. Somewhere out in the darkness something big is going, a train station or post office or cathedral.

I freeze and watch light avalanche across the sky.

All around, the tired world is luminous.

In the days after Sister Mary Gloria leaves, the streets become more deserted, the silences more expectant. The light seems deeper, heavier, threaded with gold. All week the water has tasted too sweet, as if it’s laced with syrup or antifreeze.

I carry on with my daily routine—boil water, sweep the chapel, help in the kitchen—but my mind isn’t on my work. The day after Sister Mary Gloria left, the reverend mother gathered everyone into the refectory and asked us to pray for our wayward sister. I wonder where she’s gone, whether she’s walking through forests of light or plundered cities or lakebeds gone dry with brightness. I wonder if she misses the convent, if she regrets leaving.

After three days, the wondering becomes overwhelming. I wait till Brother Joseph is downstairs at vespers, then I go quietly up the stairs to his janitor’s office. I want some idea of where Sister Mary Gloria is, who she’s with, if she’s all right.

The door to his office is unlocked, and the hairs at the nape of my neck prickle when I step inside. Just five minutes, I think. Five minutes and I’ll go.

I open the desk drawer but find nothing, only a book of prayers and some old mop invoices, so I move to the stacks of books piled around the office. I flip through the pages, some crisp and new, others wrinkled with mildew. I find a worn Bible under the pillow on his cot, but when I shake it no names or addresses come tumbling out, no secret contacts fall to the floor.

I keep searching. On the walls of the office are pinned scraps of paper, quotations from Brother Joseph’s books. Suetonius. The fire of London. Eyewitness accounts of Krakatoa. Cataclysm, cataclysm, cataclysm.

I linger on one of the notes, a paragraph written in a hasty hand.

“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?”

A chill glissandos down my spine.

“You are not a bird of your city which has been reduced to ruin mounds. You cannot live there as a resident in your good house given over to the pickaxe. You cannot act as queen of a people led off to slaughter.”

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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.