A snap of a tree branch signaled Meara wasn’t alone. Her breath caught in her lungs and swelling her belly. A tiny thrill at the possibility of being caught danced up her skin, leaving the hairs on her arms upright. Mother Superior strictly forbade the sisters from entering the woods. She called it going into the world and they’d renounced the world when they entered the convent walls. The rule was for the sisters, not her, an orphaned child who by chance was born within the walls.
A speckled fawn stepped into the sun dappled clearing allowing Meara’s breath to escape in a whoosh. A deer, a baby, which meant the mother wouldn’t be far behind. The doe stepped out from the brush giving the girl leaning against the tree a speculative glance before nibbling the mosses and delicate wildflowers. If she stayed still, the skittish forest inhabitants would ignore or possibly accept her. It meant a great deal if they accepted her in an offhand way.
Bird song accompanied the play and chuckle of the nearby creek. The area around the convent walls drew her. Here, she felt at home. It certainly felt more right than walking in straight lines with the sisters chanting somber words to an unseen male deity who demanded constant homage in the form of prayers six times a day. Her hand covered her mouth, hoping she hadn’t said such a thing aloud. Even thinking it was a sin, but speaking it would result in excommunication and some horrible punishment.
Sister Thomas reminded her, any time she’d made the mistake of complaining about the endless monotony of convent life that her mother died a painful death in childbirth due to her sins. A few sisters whispered bastard, changeling, dark whelp within her hearing. Perhaps, they needed to point out she was different as if she couldn’t have figured that out herself.
Outside the walls, she’d slip off her shoes to feel the cool spongy moss under her feet. It tickled, but more importantly, it caressed the sole of her feet. The lack of physical touch within the cloistered walls intensified her yearning for something to touch her, even if the contact was passive as she trod on it.
The tiniest shift of light motes moved through the air, forming, and reforming as if flying or tumbling. The grass beside her pushed down as if something had landed beside her. Although her eyes did not convey such information, she knew. The same as she knew her mother did not die from any great sin. Dozens of village women die in childbirth because Sister Gabriella told her when she found her crying in the garden shed.
A warmness crept over a body, a comforting peace that somehow came from the unseen presence beside her. To speak of it, would destroy it. Even Sister Gabriella, who was bolder than the other sisters because she took an angel’s name as opposed to a saint’s, wouldn’t understand. The lengthening shadows indicated the vanishing afternoon. Soon the bells would toll for the three o’clock service and her absence would be noticed.
She stood, brushing the leaves off her plain brown tunic before giving a head bob to the area where she’d been sitting. “Good day to you.” Even though no human words rode the air, she felt a response, one of respect and cheer. Her measured footsteps allowed her to move pass the wildlife without sending it fleeing. Once she cleared the woods, she grabbed the hem of her dress and ran.
The high convent walls kept out intruders, according to Sister Bartholomew. Of course, it made her wonder why the intruders would want in. A large locked gate was the only entrance and even then, the visitors came no deeper than the foyer where the Mother Superior greeted them. The temptations of the world did not overcome her, as it might a lesser sister.
A horseless carriage chugged, snorted, and belched black smoke as it made its shuddering way on the narrow road that lead to the convent. Meara forgot about her tardiness as she stood in the shadow of the trees and watched the vehicle lumber closer. The convent only possessed a dog cart and a mule for transport. Although those times were very few, which resulted in Amos, the mule, growing consistently fatter and more cantankerous.
The black vehicle had shiny sides, roof and a glass shield at the front. It would provide protection from the rain. Even more curious was the two individuals riding in it. They both possessed beards, which would make them men. Not counting the various saint statues scattered across the grounds, it was her first glimpse of an actual male. The beards were the only thing the saints and men had in common. As much as she wanted to see what happened next, she knew time was a priority.
Staying in the forest’s shadow, she sprinted for the bolt hole. The tiny opening came about from overzealous vines pulling the bricks apart in the gardens. A particular large blackberry bush hid the opening. Since her job included picking the berries, no one else had any reason to be near the hole. Would any of the sisters be tempted to squeeze through the hole for a look at the world they left behind.
They might not be as interested as she because they voluntarily left the world. A quick glance assured her no one observed her outside the walls as she wiggled though the tight break in the wall. Her tunic caught on a brick and tore. Oh no, she only had one. The tear would invite questions and accusations of carelessness. A moment of indecision had her half in the hole and half out.
Sister Gabriella’s voice called, “Do hurry, Mother Superior is asking for you.”