Three years later I was summoned to the Mother Superior’s chamber. I was very much afraid. She didn’t often call young nuns to her unless they were guilty of a misdemeanor. I walked down the hall and turned into a corridor. There was her gilt door in front of me. I did not want to go in. What should I say? How should I explain my innocence? What had I done wrong? At last I made myself turn the knob, and the door creaked heavily on its hinges.
“Sit down,” she said, more kindly than I expected. She didn’t speak again until I was seated. “You will soon be turning sixteen. You know how you came to be here, your parent’s death and your aunt bringing you here. We agreed to take you in, until you were old enough to choose for yourself. This is not a religion of forced obedience. It is a life willingly sacrificed to God with love and humility. No one can make you do it. So you must go back to your aunt’s house for a few weeks, and see how it is, living in the world, before you decide whether to become a nun or not. It is a gross sin in God’s eyes to act holy, but be angry and hateful inside. You must truly want to be a nun, otherwise only suffering will follow you. Catherine, is this clear to you, and do you agree to do as I say?”
I had no other choice. I deliberated for a moment, and imagined going out into the streets, as other girls did, and living as a part of it. It suddenly appealed to my loneliness, and I accepted her commands eagerly, though I did not show it.
“You will leave in two days. Do you know where your aunt lives?”
“No, I haven’t the slightest idea. I was too young to remember.”
“Very well. We will do what we can to find her.”
She beckoned me to leave, and I went to the chapel for Mass. I am afraid I did not pray very sincerely, I mostly dreamed about leaving the nunnery. I would buy new clothes, and walk about the town, talking to people and having a lovely time, enjoying life…and not cooped up in this musty old place. Then I remembered I had no money. I would have to ask my aunt for some. It was a shame. I could not even buy myself dresses to wear. If mother were alive, she would have made me the most wonderful clothes I could imagine. But she was dead, and all I had were my white robes. I would stick out most conspicuously. I nearly cried, and fled to my room, for fear someone would see me.
So two days later I was ushered out of the nunnery, out of the big hollow room where I had first come. Through round about ways my aunt’s address was found. I had only to find the street. I stepped out into the street, with too-large shoes on, and a very bland baggy dress on. I pulled the door closed behind me, and then regretted it. The streets were full of people shouting and crowding all over. I didn’t want to walk out into it, but it was too late to go back now. I took a deep breath and pushed my way through. I walked in the path of least resistance for a while, just trying to get my bearings. It was a lonely sort of deserted town. The stores were empty, the windows dirty and bare. Children ran around begging from everyone. I was frightened when they came near me, and at last I made them see I had no money or food either. Infants were crying from all over. The big houses were disheveled and crumbling. Most of the people I passed had a listless hollow look in their eyes. They gazed at the city, but they really didn’t see it. They didn’t want to see it; they tried to block it out. But others were livid, and their eyes were full of hate and scorn. I was scared of those ones. No one ever looked like that at the nunnery. I had never seen anyone glaring with disgusted gleams of revenge. I shuddered and quickly passed the people like that. I stopped and asked a few women for directions. I wouldn’t speak to the men; they were too loud and rough. After walking for what seemed like all day I found Aunt Matilda’s house. I was shocked to see it just as fragmented as everything else. I had the strange idea that her home would always be the same. There was no wooden door, just a dirty ripped sheet. I walked in, very slowly. If the houses could change so much, maybe my relatives would too.
“Hello, is anyone here? I am Catherine, from the nunnery. Auntie, are you here? Hello?”
I walked into the kitchen, where there were pots strewn all over, but not one had anything in it. A dog barked, and I almost screamed. The little thing jumped out from behind the stove and ran at me. It made ferocious sounds, and nipped my ankles. I grabbed its neck, I am afraid to say, and smothered it in a pan until it stopped barking.
“What are you doing?” A voice from behind me sounded. I turned around, still keeping a tight hold on the dog. It was a gruff man staring at me. “That’s my dog. Let go of it. What are you trying to do, kill it?”
“No…no,” I stuttered, “I am Catherine. I heard that my aunt Matilda lived here. Is that right?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to talk to her. She’ll be back from the ration line in a little while. I don’t remember your looks, and there are plenty of rascals running around claiming they’re our long lost brothers or sisters. You can’t trust anyone anymore.”
He evidently didn’t trust me. He sat down on a rickety chair, the back of which was threatening to fall at any moment, and looked at me intently. I concluded he must be my uncle. How he had aged…he had been a very handsome looking man. Now his face was shrunken, and he walked stiffly, as if there wasn’t anything inside of him but bones. After a few minutes I could stand his gaze any longer. I couldn’t imagine waiting any longer.
“Do you remember Aunt Matilda’s brother, who married the French woman?”
“Well, they had a daughter, and I am she. I was taken to a nunnery when I was little.”
“Why’d you have to come out now, in the worst of times? Didn’t they have enough food either?”
“No, not at all like that.” I blushed, for the first time in my life, to think of trying to live off of my aunt and uncle because I didn’t get enough to eat. “You see, I am now sixteen, and before I make a decision about becoming a nun, they wanted me to come back here, to see the world a little first.”
I did not want to promise to go back to the nunnery, yet I wanted my uncle to know I wasn’t looking for hand-outs. I heard someone’s creaky footsteps down the hall.
“Matilda must be back. Didn’t take her as long as usual.”
A moment later a tired woman walked into the room.
“Heinrich, I do declare there is getting to be less and less food to eat. A strange thing, since there’s less and less people to eat it…who is that?” She sat down suddenly, and wearily, in another chair, as if her feet couldn’t keep her up any longer.
“I am Adele, don’t you remember me? From the nunnery?”
“Oh yes, you.” She nodded suspiciously towards me. “What do you want?”
“Well, I am sixteen now, and the nuns wanted me to come back, to live in the world for a few weeks before I decide whether to become a nun or not. And you are the only family I have.”
“How long do you want to stay?”
“Just a week, or maybe two.”
“Well, I suppose I can find room somewhere for you. Where’d you get those awful clothes?”
I blushed again.
“They were the only ones the nuns had to spare.”
“Do you remember Chloe?”
“No,” I said, I had no idea who that was, “who is Chloe?”
“She was my daughter.” Aunt Matilda wiped her nose on her sleeve. My uncle got up and left, mumbling something about women always crying. “She was a few years older than you. Always very frail and weak. She got every illness possible when she was little. Two years ago she died. It was bound to happen. The world got so wicked and harsh. There wasn’t enough food to keep her alive, there wasn’t any medicine, everywhere we turned there was killing and hunger. She couldn’t stand it anymore than I could. Chloe was lucky – she escaped –and we can’t. We’re trapped in this wretched hole we’ve dug for ourselves. Nothing is left but dust and death.” She clenched her hands around a cracked mug. “You see the streets, you see the emptiness everywhere. You saw the people full of hatred, and you were scared, I know you were, just like I was.” Her voice trembled, and tears ran down her cheeks. “But the worse part of it is, that though we are frightened of that hate, we are becoming like them. I can’t help it. It starts to creep in, like hunger pains. Little by little. At first you don’t notice it much. And after a while there’s nothing left but that all consuming desire for food. It takes over everything. Oh, I wish I never heard the name Hitler. I wish I had never been born. This is what hell is like. It is death that never ends. Catherine, go back to the nunnery. That’s the only safe place for you. Look at me. I am old, I am tired, I am bitter, and I am ready to die. Don’t stay here, or that’s what will happen to you.”
She stopped to get her breath back and wipe the tears away. I didn’t know what to say. I was shocked and embarrassed. I couldn’t utter any trite comforts because, one, I wasn’t used to shallow consolations, and two, it seemed utterly inappropriate to a woman driven nearly mad by grief and agony.
“But what I began to say,” she continued after a moment, “was that I have some of Chloe’s clothes, they might fit you. They are upstairs. We can go look.”
She led me across the hall and up some rickety dusty stairs. She went into a tiny little room, completely empty except for one small trunk in the corner.
“We’ve sold or used up all the other things of Chloe’s. But no one wants dresses and such anymore–they are too busy trying to stay alive.”
The old box was opened, very slowly and Aunt Matilde pulled out a simple pale green dress. She told me to try it on, and I did. It was strange putting on the clothes of a dead girl. I wondered if, up in heaven, Chloe minded much. She probably didn’t. She would be glad I didn’t have to wear those other things. The bottom was a bit short, and the bodice a little big, but it would do much better than anything else.
With some blankets and straw she helped me fix up a bed on the floor in Chloe’s room. We made dinner together, a little tea and half a parsnip each. By then it was dark, so I shivered my way up to bed. The nights were dreadfully cold, and the green dress was very thin. I put my other outfit on over it too, but I still wasn’t able to warm up. It was hours before I drifted off to a restless sleep.
Thus was my first night in the world.