The Long, Second Day
A soft knock sounded on our cell door at dawn.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!” whispered a gentle voice.
Faith sat up in bed and chanted the traditional response, “Amen,” to which a young nun, I think it was Sister Juliana, entered our cell.
“We meet for Morning Prayers in the house chapel, in half an hour!” Then, zoom- she was gone.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as we scrambled to chapel at the beginning of Morning Prayers. It was stunning how refreshed all the nuns looked. At the end of Morning Prayers Faith, Marina and I were herded dazedly to the refectory kitchen. Sister Maria showed us where things were kept.
Staggering towards the brewing coffee, we began a marathon of sneaking shots. “This stuff is gunpowder!” choked Faith, yet she downed another blast of caffeine.
One of the sisters had thoughtfully made a huge pot of oatmeal in the slow cooker overnight. In a jiffy, we set the porridge upon the table. Only cups, bowls, spoons and a few knives were used. Faith and Marina made tea while the second pot of coffee dripped. The teapot was so massive one would need a crane operator’s license to wield it.
I sliced warm, squishy, homemade bread from the bread maker, and placed it beside a large fruit basket on the table. Faith added a tiny bouquet of sweet wildflowers alongside it, and I wondered when she had found time to pick them.
Shifting into Iron-Chef-mode I commanded Faith to mince the celery and chop the peppers and ordered Marina to grate a small mountain of cheese. Marina accidentally grated a bit of her finger into the cheese and declared offhandedly it didn’t really matter, as it wasn’t a fast day. I barked at her to quit bleeding into the cheddar, and she actually smiled. We sautéed the veggies, beat two dozen eggs, and poured them into three large buttered frying pans. We flipped all three omelet pans once, perfectly, and I proudly sprinkled great mountains of cheddar and veggies onto each half side of the omelette.
Abbess Everild entered the kitchen. No doubt she had come to see this master at work. I felt her peering over my shoulder and pretended not to notice. The final, crucial omelet “fold-over” was about to commence. Smugly focusing on the task at hand, the jarring sound of an electric can opener whirred behind me, and Koshka charged into the kitchen like a baby rhinoceros. Then, just as I was about to fold those perfect omelettes-to-be over in half, so that the cheese and veggies would melt into that wonderful gooey mess just the way it should, something unexpected happened. Abbess Everild gently pushed me out of the way, and dumped a tin of tuna onto each omelette, liquid included… splattering me with tuna water at the same time!
“What are you doing, Matushka?” I shrieked, horrified.
Faith’s face went deathly pale either at the tuna tragedy or me yelling at the abbess.
“It’s a statement of convent democracy,” deadpanned Marina.
With eyes sparkling, Matushka retorted, “It’s a fish day!”
We sat down in silence after the Grace. Breakfast was silently eaten by all, and not just because of the tuna atrocity. One of the nuns read from the Lives of Saints from the dining room’s analogion. Her name was Mother Antonina, and she radiated what I begrudgingly acknowledged as spiritual beauty. Everyone at the table continually passed each other food items and no one spoke out loud or asked for anything. In this way, each person was continually attentive to their neighbours’ needs.
Someone saved Mother Antonina a portion of the appalling, now cold, fishy omelette to eat later, however she never received any coffee. The girls and I had greedily drunk more than our fair share. I justified my gluttony by thinking it was in Mother Antonina’s best interest, that she down the ruined omelette without the waking benefits of caffeine.
When Grace After Meals was sung, we cleared the dining room table. As I took a final swig of Mother Antonia’s usurped coffee, one of the older nuns, Mother Julitta, a gaunt, stern looking woman, walked past me and hissed, “Belly of Hades”…
I nearly choked on my last swallow, and watched Mother Julitta march up to Matushka, with the strawberry jam jar, and jam spoon. She paused, showed Matushka the spoon, and then resignedly licked it completely clean of jam. Someone had left quite a dollop on it.
Matushka nodded and turned to us and said, “Waste not, want not! And this is one of Mother Julitta’s obediences- to lick the jam spoons clean!”
I suspiciously wondered if it was Mother Julitta herself who left the mass of jam on the spoon? Belly of Hades indeed!!
After breakfast, Abbess Everild announced the day’s obediences. They ranged from breakfast cleanup, lunch prep, general cleaning, weeding the vegetable garden, prayer rope and incense making, feeding the chickens, filling the cattle troughs with water, and lampada wick trimmings. Mother Thecla and Sister Anna were designated to go grocery shopping in town.
We pilgrims were to fill the cattle troughs with water. The nuns rented some of their pasture land in the summer for local farmers to graze their herds. Sometimes they grazed sheep, but not this year. Oh joy. Each of us donned communal gumboots and Faith showed Marina and me out to the barn.
Marina was in a bad mood this morning, and it didn’t take much to annoy her. I attributed it to the omelette fiasco. As we trudged to the barn, we discussed the idea of eating meat in general. Then Faith and I compared what we missed most when going vegan during the fasts.
I righteously proclaimed that even when not fasting, I had recently given up eating any red meat… not just from an esoteric standing, but because cows seem to have very expressive, emotional eyes.
Marina growled. “Well, you won’t find any meat here at the convent anyway, you little multivores… monastics are vegetarians.”
“Well, they’re not strictly vegetarians, don’t you mean that they’re episcopalians?” corrected Faith, innocently. “Monastics eat fish too.”
Marina narrowed her eyes at Faith and me, “Monastics are pescetarian, you airheads!” Shaking her head in disbelief or disgust, I couldn’t guess which, Marina turned and stomped down the road, past the convent gates.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I bellowed.
Faith shushed me, and said Marina was going for a much needed smoke, as smoking wasn’t allowed on convent property. Marina had left us to water the cattle on our own, and dodge cow pies. Beside the barn, Faith and I caught up on cousinly-stuff. The woods beyond beckoned invitingly. The air was sweet with the breath of balsam fir, but I ruined the moment by saying something out of turn, which made Faith cross with me.
Saved by the lunch bell, Faith and I walked silently back to the convent. We discovered four guests had dropped in to visit the convent unexpectedly. The poor, hospitable nuns had scrambled at the last moment to try and stretch the meal and make more room at the crowded table.
The guests laughed and talked rudely while Mother Stephania tried to read aloud from the analogion. Finally, Abbess Everild cleared her throat loudly and gave the guests “the eye”. The chastened visitors suddenly remembered their manners, and began to listen.
It seemed what Mother Stephania was reading was directed specifically at me. It had to do with judging others and selfishness. Squirming uncomfortably, I took solace in a delicious veggie-bean soup, warm homemade bread dripping with butter, mild and tart cheeses and a walnut salad of wilted greens in citrus vinaigrette.
Portions were much smaller due to the unexpected company, but like ‘loaves and fishes,’ after the Prayer Before Meals, there seemed more than enough for all. Although there was no need for it, the strawberry jam jar appeared at the table again! I vowed that before I went home, I would discover who left the large dollop on the jam spoon at each meal.
When Grace After Meals was sung, our next obedience was to wash the lunch dishes. While carrying the dirty dishes to the kitchen, I missed observing who the jam spoon culprit was again. When Mother Julitta passed by me, this time she whispered, “Spirit of slander,” and I recoiled with horror.
Once again, Mother Julitta stood in front of Matushka, humbly licking the jam spoon clean.
Faith and I had discussed the case of the jam spoon mystery earlier while filling the cattle troughs. I assumed it was Mother Julitta loading up the jam spoon herself… and why was it even considered obedience?
“It’s always the quiet ones,” I nodded knowingly to Faith, thinking she would be duly impressed with my deduction of Mother Julitta.
Instead, she looked a bit shocked. “How unkind of you,” Faith frowned.
I felt awkward, but ignored her comment.
We three girls were free for the afternoon until Compline. At least Faith was finally talking to me again, and we helped some of the nuns weed the vegetable garden. Wishing I had a pair of garden gloves that fit, I stood up straight and stretched my back. We saw Marina set off alone down the road again… probably for another smoke. This time Abbess Everild ran behind her, calling out. Once she caught up, they strolled along together talking, and Marina began laughing! What was that about?
My first full day passed quickly and before we knew it, it was dark and we were saying Evening Prayers again together in the chapel. I glanced curiously once at Marina when she took a turn reading. I couldn’t tell if it was the light or not, but it seemed her lip and chin piercings were missing.
My thoughts scattered. I couldn’t believe all the things that had happened in just one day at the convent. Today felt like two or three days rolled into one! This was going to be a very long month! I ripped my headscarf off later and fell exhausted into bed. I glanced over at Faith, said goodnight, and turned off the light. Tonight Koshka was curled up adorably at the end of her bed.
I was dozing and almost asleep when Faith whispered loudly, “Hey there cousin mine, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I mumbled groggily into my pillow.
“Do you ever have temptations, during fasts?”
“Yes, of course silly! I’m sure everyone does, and not just during fasts,” I punched my pillow with annoyance. There was a little wet spot where I had been drooling while dozing. Ugh!
Faith had me remembering my own private temptations… Like… I’ve been to church soooo many times, all my life. I’ve heard everything thousands of times. Do I really still need to go every single Saturday night and Sunday morning? I mean, I wanna do other things too! Especially when some of my friends have really cool things planned Saturday nights. My parents might as well keep me locked up in some big ol’ Rapunzel tower.
Faith interrupted my thoughts. “Yup… this year the Apostles Fast seemed to last forever. It’s the first time ever that I wanted to just say forget it, and eat meat or cheese. And right at the end,too! I almost did it.” Faith sounded upset. “I was so surprised I could even feel like that. Things are harder now sometimes… for some reason.”
Wow! Faith and I had similar troubles?
Faith continued, “One of my friends threw an evening barbeque during the last week of the fast. There were the juiciest hamburgers ever, sizzling on the grill, and a whole platter of the plumpest, creamiest, stuffed eggs, I’d ever seen. I’m serious! They called to me! Eat me! Eat me!”
Faith paused. “So, I thought, what would it matter? It’s just an egg! Like, I mean I was going to be good too, and eat a veggie burger, but I was also planned to enjoy an egg… or two. Yah, I know… it was premeditated, but it wouldn’t really matter, would it? I mean, the fast was over anyway in a few days!”
I pictured Faith tied to a ship’s mast like Ulysses of old, her long ebony hair streaming in the wind, while a gigantic platter of stuffed eggs screamed their siren song from the rocks to her… “Eat me! Eat me…!”
Faith stifled a yawn, “Somehow I found the strength to just eat the veggie burger, and no eggs. Next day, I heard that everyone at the barbeque who ate the stuffed eggs, had terrible food poisoning. The eggs had sat out too long in the sun, and my friends were really sick for a few days. If I had given in, and eaten an egg, I would have been deathly sick too! By fasting, I was protected!”
This was literally food for thought, in so many ways. “Thanks for sharing with me, Faith.”
© Barbara Bruce
Chapter 5: Bitter News and Danger