The Sisters of Beneficent Misery orphanage and girls’ school sat precariously at the very top of the only hill in Orangeville. When Rita saw it for the first time, from the outskirts of the town, she thought it was about to topple over. It looked like such a shithole she nearly started to cry.
“Jesus-Christ-Mary-Mother-of-God,” she said. “That’s the dump you’re going to ditch me in?”
“Rita!” snapped Auntie Margie. “Watch your fucking mouth!”
“Oh God,” moaned Rita. “It looks like a prison, or a mortuary, or a lunatic asylum. I’m going to die of typhus in there. While you’re getting drunk at the Legion I’m going to die of typhus. It’s a certainty: I’m going to get typhus and die.”
Auntie Margie scrabbled around in her handbag for her smokes and ended up spilling cigarettes all over the vinyl seat.
“Just a couple of hours more,” she muttered and jammed the lighter into the dashboard, “a couple hours more.”
Rita glared out the window at all the clapboard houses with their neat lawns and their picket fences.
They pulled up at a four-way and a kid on a banana-seat sat at the corner staring at her. She gave him the finger.
A tall, slow-moving sister called Martha showed Rita her bed and left her in the room. There were five other beds, a crucifix hanging over every one. A single dusty shaft of light shone down on the warped floorboards from a narrow window high up the wall. Rita dropped her bag on the floor and threw herself facedown onto the itchy blanket. The pillow smelled like a hospital. A fly was battering its head on the window: buzz-buzz-bump, buzz-buzz-bump, buzz-buzz-bump. Rita lay there for about fifteen minutes before a bell rang. A moment later there was a clatter of footsteps on the stairs and the hall echoed with shouts and laughter. The door burst open. Rita did not open her eyes.
“It’s the new girl,” someone whispered and Rita lay perfectly still.
“She’s asleep,” someone else said.
“Or dead,” squeaked a new voice.
The floor creaked.
“Or faking,” said the first voice right at her shoulder.
Rita rolled over and looked at the girl standing beside her. She had blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail and was wearing a navy jumper and a tartan skirt.
“Faking what?” she asked. “Being bored?”
The girl smirked at her and Rita looked at the door. Three more girls stood there, all in the same uniform.
“What a bloody boring dump this place is,” said Rita.
“And I suppose you came from somewhere ever so much more exciting?” said the blonde girl.
“Yes,” said Rita. “I did. I came from somewhere much, much, much more exciting. When’s supper?” she asked and sat up. “I’m starved.”
The food was so bland Rita had to keep asking for more salt. She asked five times. She was seated at the end of the table by a little girl with brown hair and thick glasses. Sitting across from her was a girl with straight black hair and dark eyes. The blonde girl was at the far end of their table opposite a tall girl with a thick thatch of dark curls.
“Where are you from, Rita?” the little girl asked her.
“What’s your name?” asked Rita.
“Julia,” said the little girl.
“I’m from the North Pole, Julia,” Rita replied. “Pass the ketchup, please.”
The blonde girl smirked at her again and Rita winked back.
“Okay, not quite the North Pole,” she said, “but pretty close. I was born on an island in the Arctic Ocean: Ouroboros Island.”
“What a funny name,” said Julia.
“It’s a Norwegian word,” said Rita. “It’s the name of a giant snake that is stretched right around the world in a big hoop and holds it all together. Ouroboros Island is where the head bites the tail.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said the blonde girl.
“What’s your name?” asked Rita.
“Well, Maureen,” said Rita. “If that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard you should pay more attention to the crap the priests talk on Sunday morning.”
That night Rita watched Sister Martha out of the corner of her eye. The girls were in their nightgowns, kneeling at their beds with their hands clasped. Sister Martha was praying as well. Even when she knelt she looked long and languid. A coil of dark hair had escaped from her habit. She tucked all the other girls in before Rita. Her dark eyes glittered in the flickering fluorescent light.
“Who had this bed before me?” Rita asked.
“A very wicked girl called Natasha McFadden,” said Sister Martha. “Who never said her prayers but just pretended.”
“What happened to her?” asked Rita. “Where’d she go?”
“She snuck out of the orphanage one day,” said Sister Martha, “to go sledding down the back of the hill and she hit her head on a tree in the Protestant churchyard.”
“Did it kill her?”
Sister Martha smiled.
“She came back here,” she said, “and we bandaged her up and put her to bed.”
Rita let herself relax.
“Right here,” whispered Sister Martha and brushed the hair from Rita’s forehead. “Right in this very bed. Then Natasha McFadden fell asleep: and she never woke up.”
The town kids at the pool hall were telling Maureen and Rita about a movie playing at the Dreamland. It was called The Exorcist. The boys were particularly excited about the scene with the crucifix.
“You Catholics,” Simon Clarke said as he was lining up his shot, “are always getting possessed.”
“That’s right,” said Rita and stubbed out her ciggie on the back of his elbow.
Simon knocked the eight ball clear off the table.
“Jesus Christ!” he shouted. “What the hell!”
“It wasn’t me,” she said. “I’m Catholic. It was my devil.”
Rita dug around for another smoke and watched Maureen soothing Simon’s outrage. Teddy Sutton and Mike Watters were leaning on their cues grinning. Sarah Hart was sitting on the bench, back rigid against the wall, arms crossed, glaring at Maureen.
That night Rita asked Sister Martha if it was true only Catholics got possessed.
“Who told you that?” asked Sister Martha.
“The town kids,” said Rita and at the same time Maureen said: “Simon Clarke.”
They were in their beds and Sister Martha was standing by the light switch.
“Well it’s true,” said Sister Martha and the girls all gasped.
“Did they tell you why?” asked Sister Martha.
“No,” said Rita.
“Because the Protestants are going to burn anyways, so it’s the Catholics the Devil wants to catch.”
She flicked off the light.
Maureen stood on books piled up on a chair and blew smoke out the window. Lily, the tall girl with the curls sat on the unused bed in the corner with Sophia, the girl with the dark eyes and the straight black hair.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” said Lily. “It’s a sin.”
“I don’t care,” said Maureen.
“And it’s bad for you.”
“I don’t care about that either.”
Rita lowered Ripley’s Believe It or Not to watch.
“Every night I pray that you’ll stop being bad,” said Lily, “because it’s my duty to try and save you from hell.”
Maureen ignored her.
“That’s funny, Lily,” said Rita. “Because every night I pray that you’ll stop being a mean judgmental bitch, and that’s not working either.”
“Tell us about Ouroboros Island,” said Julia.
Rita and Maureen were smoking behind the small brick building at the bottom of the park by the river while Julia watched them. The building had something to do with the sewers and the air down there was always funky. Mike and Teddy had covered the back of it with a spray paint scrawl of “Led Zep” and “AC/DC” and “Fuck You” and “Boner.” They had also painted a huge cock and balls on the concrete slab where the girls stood. Julia didn’t like her feet to touch the thick, confident lines, but the other two didn’t care.
“There were no trees,” said Rita. “In the summer we lived in a corrugated metal hut by the harbor and my dad would dig up teeth and knuckles from the old Viking graveyards and organize them in little plastic boxes. My mom would go hunting for seals and whales with the Eskimos. If it was raining, I’d stay in the shed and read comic books or listen to the radio or build robots out of spare parts. If it was clear, I’d help my Dad count bits of bones, or go out with my mom onto the blue ocean. When it was sunny it was so bright you could hardly see. It’s because the air is so thin at the top of the world. The light comes smashing down in a great big wave and crashes into the water. It’s like being in the middle of an explosion. You have to wear sunglasses all the time or you’ll go blind.”
“Did the robots actually work?” asked Julia.
“Sometimes the wind would blow,” said Rita. “But we were so close to the North Pole it was only ever the south wind. It came rushing up from the cities and the towns and countryside down below. You could smell where it came from. Indian winds all smelled like curry and cinnamon and cows; the Chinese like jasmine and tea and opium; New York like automobile exhaust and hot dogs and money, money, money.”
“What about Orangeville winds?” asked Maureen.
“Most of the time they smelled like the dumpster behind the Sisters of Misery kitchen does on Sunday after the fish heads have been in it for a while, but sometimes, if they came blowing through on a rainy day, you might catch the faintest whiff of one of Mike Watters’ wet farts.”
“The way I want to cash out,” Rita said, “is spontaneous combustion.”
“What’s that?” asked Julia
“Sometimes people catch fire for no reason,” Rita said. “They burn right up. Nothing left behind but shoes, there’s pictures in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
“It sounds like bullshit to me,” Maureen didn’t even look up from her magazine.
“It’s not,” said Rita. “It’s true. It runs in my family.”
“Really?” asked Maureen. “Is that what happened to your folks? On Ouroboros Island? Nothing left but smoking shoes?”
“No,” said Rita. “I already told you how they died. My dad had a heart attack and when my mom found out she made herself a bright blue Drain-o cocktail.”
Maureen turned back to her magazine.
“How do you want to die?” Rita asked her. “I’m guessing you expect to expire from pleasure at the cinema while Simon Clarke finger fucks you through a double feature.”
Maureen flipped the page.
“I want to drown in a swimming pool,” said Julia. “In a clean, blue pool with tile around the edges and then a green lawn and palm trees and a white stone wall with broken glass on the top.”
No one said a word.
“In a movie star’s backyard,” said Julia: “In Palm Springs.”
“I want to die in my sleep,” said Lily, “while I’m dreaming about being in heaven with my mom.”
“Oh God, Lily,” said Rita. “You are such a bring-down.”
“The way you should want to die,” said Sister Martha from the door and the girls all jumped, “is when you can still taste the host on your tongue, just before the wicked thoughts creep back in.”
When they had finally been chased into bed and Sister Martha turned off the light Lily called out to her.
“Do all Protestants go to hell?”
“Yes,” said Sister Martha, “and the Atheists and the Jews and Catholics lukewarm in their faith.”
“Is there nothing we can do to save them?”
“You can baptize them as they die,” said Sister Martha, “if they are lucky enough for you to be there.”
“Don’t you need holy water for that?” asked Rita.
“You can use whatever is at hand,” said Sister Martha. “When I was still in high school in Thunder Bay a drunk Protestant drove his car into a tree near my bus stop. He flew right through the window and landed at my feet in a pile – like a bird with a broken back. When I saw the windshield cleaning fluid leaking from the wreck I knew immediately what to do. I used it to cross his forehead and gave him his last rites. I knew it worked because he grew calm, and smiled at me, and the air was filled with scent of roses. I could hear the leaves rustle as his soul rose to heaven.”
“How did you know he was drunk?” asked Rita.
“How did you know he was a Protestant?” asked Maureen.
“Good night, girls,” said Sister Martha and closed the door.
Rita had followed Maureen all the way to the diner where the Greyhound stopped, arguing the whole way. They were almost finished with their plate of fries when Sister Martha came sweeping in, Julia tripping after her. Some women eating pie and drinking coffee a few tables over, shopping bags at their feet, all turned to watch
“Julia, you little rat,” hissed Maureen. “You’re so dead.”
Sister Martha looked down at her placidly.
“I’m leaving,” said Maureen. “I’ve had enough. I hate this town, I hate school, I hate the orphanage, and I hate you.”
“You are not leaving,” said Sister Martha.
“I am,” said Maureen, and began to cry. “I’m leaving.”
Sister Martha waited. Julia stood beside her, perspiration gleaming on her forehead, breathing heavily. Rita sucked noisily on the dregs of her float.
“I hate you,” said Maureen.
“Come,” said Sister Martha and extend her cool, dry hand. Maureen stared at it awhile, then wiped her eyes and stood up. Sister Martha put a long arm around her.
“Get her bags,” she said to Julia.
“Pay the bill,” she said to Rita.
One of the women at the other table said: “The reason there’s no Protestant orphanages in Orangeville is because Protestant girls aren’t such whores that they’ll open their legs for anyone who calls them pretty and can dance a two-step.”
“The reason there aren’t any Protestant orphanages in Orangeville,” Sister Martha said, Maureen tucked tightly into her side, “is that when Protestant girls make a mistake their mothers take them to a crone on Albert Street who tears the mess out of their bellies with a butcher’s hook and throws the poor unbaptized things into the gutter.”
“Sister Martha has not been feeling well,” said the young priest and cleared his throat. They were in an otherwise empty classroom. The girls sat at desks in a rough half circle about him. He was perched on the edge of the teacher’s table.
“Not everything she has been telling you is strictly true,” he added.
“Are those two claims somehow connected?” asked Rita.
The priest blinked at her.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“Does her feeling unwell have something to do with the things she says?”
“Well, yes, I suppose you could put it like that,” said the priest.
“But I didn’t put it like that,” said Rita. “You did.”
Maureen was fluttering her eyelashes at him and chewing on her pencil.
“You see,” said the priest. “A brain can get overheated by fever, and all stirred up by anxieties, it can start producing all sorts of disconnected ideas.”
“Disconnected with what?” asked Rita.
“Why, with reality,” said the priest.
Maureen slid a little lower into her chair and let her knees swing open a smidge.
“Sister Martha told us that if we ran around the church widdershins three times and stood on our heads while we recited a Hail Mary backwards then demons would appear,” said Rita.
“Is that true, girls?” the priest looked around at the others.
“We don’t know,” said Maureen. “We haven’t tried it.”
“It’s obviously not true” said the priest. “I meant is it true that Sister Martha really told you that?”
“Like I said,” said Rita: “Demons.”
“She also said that Protestant babies bite their mother’s boobs,” said Julia, “because they haven’t been baptized and the Devil makes them do it.”
“That’s not true either.”
“She really did say it, Father,” said Rita. “We all heard her.”
“I meant about the babies,” said the priest. “It’s not true.”
“They don’t bite boobs?” asked Julia.
“I don’t know,” said the priest. “But if they do it’s not because the Devil made them do it.”
“Was it also a lie when she told us that the priests use magic to turn wine into the blood of Christ?” asked Maureen.
“No,” said the priest. “It’s not a lie per se, but it isn’t really the priests and it isn’t really magic.”
The girls stared at him.
“Look,” said the priest. “Whatever it was precisely that Sister Martha told you isn’t important. What is important is that if you are confused about things you come and talk to me or one of the other fathers about your concerns.”
“I choose you,” said Maureen.
“Slut,” said Rita under her breath.
“I beg your pardon?” the priest frowned.
“What about the sisters?” asked Rita. “Are they as good as a priest? Or are they all liars like Sister Martha?”
“Sister Martha isn’t a liar,” said the priest.
“But you said…” began Rita and the priest cut her off.
“I said Sister Martha has been unwell,” said the priest. “She will be leaving us shortly. And if you are confused or concerned about her behavior or the things she said please talk to any of the fathers, or, indeed, any of the sisters, and they will be happy to help you out directly or refer you to someone who can.”
“Sister Martha said if you have carnal relations on a grave your baby will be born with second sight,” said Lily. “Is that true?”
“Certainly not,” said the priest.
“That only works if you do it while you’re having your period,” said Rita.
“None of it is true,” said the priest and stood up. “It’s all rubbish.”
The girls stared at him.
“So if you have any concerns,” he said. “Any concerns at all, please talk to me or one of the other fathers.”
“Or sisters,” added Julia.
“Yes,” said the priest and strode to the door, “or any of the sisters.”
“I’m glad we had this talk,” he said and stepped out, closing it firmly behind him.
“What an idiot,” said Maureen loudly and through the frosted glass they saw his shoulders slump.
Sister Elizabeth who was old and had a German accent oversaw the girls that night. She told them Sister Martha was leaving in a day or two for Sault Ste. Marie. Rita asked if she was being sent to a lunatic asylum for a lobotomy but Sister Elizabeth didn’t know what a lobotomy was. When the girls explained it to her she laughed, because she thought it one of Rita’s stupid jokes. That night Rita dreamt there was a glittering black snake coiled around the orphanage, she heard Sister Martha whispering “she fell asleep and never woke up, she fell asleep and never woke up,” and saw Sister Martha’s dark eyes, black as a slough in the middle of the night.
The next day Rita skipped breakfast to have a ciggie inside the janitor’s shed. She was peering through the half open door and saw Sister Martha come out of the chapel. As Rita watched Sister Martha staggered slightly, clutched at her chest, and looked down to see white smoke rising from between the fingers of her clenched hand. The smoke crept up her throat and coiled around her head like a crown. The air was filled with the smell of roses, the perfume of them, rich and heavy and indolent. Sister Martha looked up, smiling slightly, her face glowing. Then her eyes fluttered shut, she lifted up her chin, stretched out her arms from side to side – fingers extended, and thrust out her steaming chest. Martha’s secret, shining heart burst into white flame and Rita screamed. The nun began to rise into the air, rotating slowly, arms still stretched out, radiant face turned to the sky. She was singing “Ave Maria.” There was music everywhere, falling like rain from the glorious blue heavens, pouring into the courtyard, pouring in from off the roofs of the chapel and the dormitories and offices, pouring down the brick walls into the graveled yard.
Girls and teachers and administrative staff all came rushing out to see what was happening and Sister Martha, ablaze, rose higher and higher into the sky, a flaming crucifix, the music and the scent of roses trailing in her wake. Up, up, up, she rose, still rotating, still singing, until she dwindled into a point of bright light, and vanished.
There was silence. A pair of shoes sat in the middle of the courtyard, Puma trainers, one on its side, the other upright, a thin trickle of black smoke rising from its open mouth.
William Squirrell is a Canadian living in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Blue Monday Review, Necessary Fiction and other venues. He has work forthcoming with Daily Science Fiction and Drabblecast. More information can be found at blindsquirrell.blogspot.com