II: The Feast of the Ascension
My psaltery wept, but did not lie. I put my ring in the water. I cut my hair in the name of the Mother of Christ, Star of the Sea. I hung my hymen on a golden hook and there were no more strange and clever books, only the onionskin pages of a Bible I was privileged to read. There was no father, or mother, groaning beneath the weight of history. There was a silence like tides, and a wimple white as mourning.
That first day in the convent, without much hope, I looked behind the three crucifixes which hung shadow–heavy over the three naves of the Church of the Blessed Virgin. In each of the naves was an altar and a statue of the Mother of Our Lord, one with a green diadem, her veils blooming with summer roses, one with a blue cowl and stars gleaming in her lap, one with a black hood and the long, translucent skeletons of huge fish fanning out behind her like palm fronds. On all of these women was written nothing. On the crosses there was nothing; there was INRI written like a scolding, but that was not what I sought. I missed my roses and my cart–wheels. I swept the Nave of the Dove clear of the sea which always threatened to scour Our Lord from his accustomed grotto, so near had the chapel been built to the frothing silver–green water. I picked scallop shells from the eyes of the Immaculatae, leaving thready gouges in the blue wood which had been their irises. I looked into their unmoving eyes and fervently wished to become a blackbird.
It was not long before, in despair and boredom, I began every morning to search the Church for that familiar scrawl, for the hand of my Father's Fool, whoever that might have been. I told myself that today he would have found me, today I would read about nuns and blackbirds again. It passed the time; I made my explorations each dawn like rosaries. First bead: under the steps. Second bead: behind the stations of the cross. Third bead: beneath the pews. Fourth bead: between the folds of Mary's sea–chipped blue hood. Fifth bead: around the rim of my breakfast bowl. I finished my devotions at the great Bible, examining the margins for the slightest notation on the nature of the canal–fish's canticles.
For such close scrutiny of scripture, I was thought very devout, purest of the new sisters.
And so I was allowed to go in the late spring with another novice and a senile old priest whose face was half–palsied and half rotted red by drink away from the sea to bless the wheat. The sisters did this each year, accompanied by local clergy as is proper when young girls assay through the hinterlands, as the Abbess said. I could not see what a virgin's broom–blistered hand might accomplish when set upon the sprigs of new grain stubbling up from the earth, but it was enough to leave the chapel, and the three naves, and walk on dry ground.
In other years the accompanying priest was young and pious, and we aved and patered over the grass with no more trouble than a bee takes landing on a lily. In my second year, this decrepit father came with us, hardly more use than Pietro himself. At each farm we passed, the millers eyed him nervously, keeping out of the way of his afflicted half, which occasionally flung out a helpless arm or shuddered violently, scattering seed. When he collapsed in his cups, spilling liquor over his cracked knuckles in the blue evenings, each miller in his house scowled and stroked his beard, deeper in thought than I imagined a miller could be.
"We ought to get the Holy Father away from these men," whispered my brown–eyed sister.
"Why? There are more farms who have asked for us, and he is only an old drunk."
My sister squirmed, her bovine face anxious. "Yes, I know. That is why we ought to get him away. This is not Caorle, God sometimes, in His Infinite Attention, forgets the countryside."
"I would not think a farmer's daughter so haughty, Lorenza," I hissed. She blushed tomato–bright and said no more.
As the priest shook and trembled in his sleep that night, we moped his brow and held his limbs as still as we might. I checked the bedposts for handwriting, but they were bare. And so the millers found us, the fat young man who hosted us, and nearly every other flour–pounder we had visited. They seized us with red and sweating hands, and Lorenza screamed — young nuns scream when men touch them, do they not? She did her duty admirably. But they simply held us aside while three millers hoisted the priest up out of his bed and carried him into the dark. The fat, earnest man who had given us such cakes to eat when the sun shone looked wretched and shamed before us, though we hardly less, with Lorenza clutching me in terror as we stood in a raftered corner of his house.
"It was a bad year," he said pleadingly, "so many storms. If we do not, they will come across the sea with their terrible masks and their dripping coats of sheepswool, and they will ravish you in your cells — it is for you we do this thing!" The miller tried to smile, but his smile was sick and shallow.
Lorenza drew herself up and strode past the miller into the fields. "God knows you palm your scales," she spat, the worst thing a country girl could think of.
"For the vodníci!" the fat miller cried, tears rolling thick and salted in his eyes, wide as a maddened ox. "Spare us!"
"Only God can spare you," I said uncertainly.
They laughed hollowly, resignedly, and plunged the priest into the liquor, holding him down while he bubbled and flailed. They stroked his back with absurd gentleness, stroked it until he slackened and ceased what fighting such a man has in him. Lorenza knelt in the wheat, feverishly praying, calling Maria, Maria over and over, as though calling her mother to quell her nightmares and bring her a cup of water in the dark. I said nothing. The millers took the body and began to grimly cut it into pieces, parceling it out evenly between them. I said nothing, but watched the fat miller take his share to his goat–pen and heave the lot over the fence.
I walked slowly to the barrel and ran my fingers around the cypress wood, methodically, around the rim and each curved plank, probing for letters burned into the timber. And I gasped: on the bottom of the drowning cask, black and stark in the moonlight, was scorched:
Nothing can be written in the book of the barrel but this: Even the Eye of God cannot glimpse what cavorts on His Eyelids.
I knelt heavily in the wheat, weeping in relief, stroking the script. Lorenza ran to me and pressed my head to her wide breast, her comfort infinite. I smiled against her incense–laden skin.
We agreed it best to report that the Holy Father had expired of drink and been quietly buried by country clergy wishing to spare him shame. Lorenza was no more than a wraith by the time we returned to Caorle, her brown hair hanging in her face, her wimple askew, her eyes little more than holes drilled in her face by some infernal awl.
"His face," she whispered to me as we drew near again to the Church of the Blessed Virgin of the Angel, where those three Marys stood in their three naves, welcoming us to her arms, "his face was so swollen when they pulled him out of the cask — it was meat, red and puffy and bloody, just meat —"
"Hush, sister. It does not do to think on it. Mary will take him to the feet of her Son."
Indeed I did not think on it at all. Perhaps that is a wickedness I have committed. If so, I confess it. I was fired with the letters on the barrel and began to search for them throughout the Church, every inch of the triple nave, every grain of the three Marys. I ventured out, once the priest had been sufficiently mourned, to the sea–lapped road leading out from the chapel. The tide brought the foam nearly to the marble steps, and I overturned shell after shell, looking for the historian's words in their nacreous concavities. My hair had grown by then, though it would never again fall as far as it had, and the sweat beneath my veils curled its pale strands. When I was certain I was alone, I pulled the veils free and let it hang down into the surf, silver on silver.
I found it on a huge clamshell, its clam still shrinking inside. Over the hard green–gray surface was delicately etched:
The vodníci came from the sea, and are made of the sea, and the sea is churning even now under seventeen long, black ships. They will come looking for a wet, green country, on a night called Velja Noc, but what do you think they will find instead? A girl I once knew, in black veils, standing on the shore.