Away Down the Hill, Chapter One

My name is Adele.  But the other sisters call me Catherine. So I do not know who I am. My mother was French.  My father was German. My father’s family was angry because he married a foolish French woman. After my parents died I was given to a nunnery, and have lived there ever since. I remember the day, when I was four years old. My aunt Matilda pulled me impatiently through the streets and stopped at the nunnery door. She crossly straightened my little brown dress and tied the old shoes that were too big for me, and then a nun opened the door and my aunt at once became grown up and wouldn’t look at me anymore.
“This is an orphan. Will you take her and bring her up to be good girl?”
“Please come in. I will go ask the mother-superior.”
We were led into a hollow sounding dark courtyard and made to wait a great while, it seemed to me. My aunt amused herself by rummaging through her small purse and looking at relics of the past stashed in it. She would not allow me the privilege of touching anything, and so I wandered around the room and stared at the strange pictures of a woman holding a child, of angels, and a man wrapped in sheets floating on clouds.  At last another nun came in and spoke to my aunt for a few minutes. My aunt sounded angry and after shouting a little became satisfied. As I look back, perhaps she did not shout, but that the bigness and emptiness of the room made her voice louder than it really was.  My aunt smiled too sweetly at me, and walked out. The nun took my hand gently and led me into another place. It was a long hallway, and I was afraid it was never ending. We at last reached the last door, and the nun slowly opened it. It was a sort of chapel, with candles lining the walls. At the very front of it was a statue of that same woman I saw in the courtyard, smiling down at her baby.  The nun paused where we stood.
“This is where we worship God,” she said softly. I didn’t want to speak, the lady with the child seemed to be telling us to be quiet and just look at her. “This is where you will come too, and worship God with us. Do you know who that lady there is? It is the mother of Jesus Christ. He delivered His people from their sins, by dying for them.  He was perfect. He never sinned, but He bore our sins for us. We now pray to Him, and His Father, because His father is now our Father. You used to have a father, didn’t you?”
I nodded.
“But he died. Christ’s Father never died, and never will. He is in Heaven, and he listens when we speak to him. Now, enough of that.” She turned around suddenly, as if remembering her real duty. “My name is Sister Clotilde. Let me show you where you are to sleep.”
She took me out of the chapel and down the hall halfway. She opened another door that led into a very small room, with a little bed in the corner, a window, and a shelf next to the window. The walls were brick, I felt them, and they were cold.
“You aren’t used to this plainness, are you? But this is the way we know Christ better, for he did not have grand and comfortable rooms. Through this we learn how to love Christ and others more. This dress is all you have, isn’t it? We shall make you a new one tomorrow.  Lie down and rest until dinnertime. I will come get you then.”
I sat on the edge of the bed for a little while after she left me, and then I stood up on the bed so I could peer out the window. I saw a small garden, where some nuns were walking. It was fall, and nearly everything was dead and brown.  There were no children out there and I was disappointed. I had never played with children my age before, and had hoped there would be some here.  But maybe the children were lying down, resting, like me.  Finally I became tired and threw my head down on the hard mattress. The blankets were rough and smelled strange to me. My back was against the clammy chill of the bricks, and I shivered. It was a different place here, and I did not like it. I wanted my mother’s warmth. I remembered the evenings when I would sit on her lap, with my father beside us, and we were together, safe and comfortable. She would laugh, and her laugh made my heart warm with love for her. She chattered away in her own language, and then stuttered something out in German. There was something in her way of saying things that made me feel a wonderful admiration for her.  I wanted her back. She would make the bleakness of this place bright and cheery.  And I cried for her. I wept until the blanket was damp. Then I closed my eyes and slept.
Sister Clotilde came and woke me.  I hoped she did not notice how red my eyes were, or how wet the coverlet was.
“Time to come eat, child. Do you miss your parents very much?”
I nodded.
“My mother died when I was little too. I cried for months, even years after she was gone. I am sorry that it happened to you.”
I nodded again a little. I was still very shy.  She took my hand and led me down the hall, almost back to the courtyard, but we turned right and went into a long room with a long table in it. There were steaming bowls of something at every place. She sat me down beside her and we waited for the other sisters. After they were all seated the nun at the end of the table began speaking, like a chant, and everyone bowed their heads. I did too, but I couldn’t keep my eyes closed.  It was soon over, and they began eating in silence. The nun at the end of the table asked me how old I was. I told her I was four, and she said I was very young.  All the nuns spent the dinner time looking at me. Some were cautious and suspicious, others full of compassion, and others a little angry, as if I were intruding. After I ate my stew Sister Clotilde told me I was to go back to my room and sleep. In the morning I would come to Mass with them.  She took me and a candle back to the little room. The candle only weakly penetrated the darkness. Sister Clotilde then left me with the tiny beacon of light, and closed the door. I was frightened. I had always been frightened of the darkness.  My mother used to sit and rock me, singing French lullabies until I was asleep. But this dark was even worse because I was alone, and I thought that if I screamed perhaps no one would come comfort me.  I crept to the bed and pulled myself up to the window again. The moon was shining brightly, and that helped to sooth my worry. I watched it shining on the cold ground until it moved beyond my sight. Then I lay down and cried myself to sleep.
Thus was my first day at St. Margaret’s Nunnery.

Leave a Reply