Away Down the Hill, Chapter Five

The way back to the nunnery was changed very much, I nearly lost my way a number of times. Buildings that I remembered no longer existed. There were soldiers all over, and I was frightened of them. Thankfully they didn’t take much notice of an ugly, scrawny girl creeping along dressed in ancient clothes. But it was mid afternoon by the time I reached the nunnery. I was quite weak, and had to stop often to rest. I knocked quietly on the door. There was no answer. I tried again, as hard as I could. I waited until I could not stand any longer, and sat down on the cobblestones. A few minutes later someone opened the door, and I jumped up, brushing the dirt off my skirt.
“I am Catherine, do you remember me?” I recognized the other person; it was Mary, who had the room across from mine.
“Catherine?” She stared at my ragged frame, and apparel. “We didn’t think you would come back. Are you really Catherine? You went to stay with relatives for a week or two?”
“Yes, it is truly me. Please let me come in, I am terribly tired.”
“Have you come back to stay, for good? To be a nun?”
“Yes, yes, I have. I shall be a nun.” The words flowed clumsily on their own, and I did not make them. After they were spoken, and the sounds echoed eerily in the cloister, I felt heaviness in my heart.  The weight squeezed out a tear, and I hastily brushed it away. I shall be a nun. There was leaden dullness left, as if what used to beat with energy and hope had now turned to stone. I felt prison doors being pulled closed, tighter, with each step I took. This was a life of dreary self-imprisonment. This was a life of utter despair and routine. It was safe, but the nunnery felt dead. Those inside were living corpses, praying and pretending they were enjoying a life of denial and pain. But there was a thick heaviness that pervaded even the air I breathed. Oh no, not this. I can’t do it, I can’t promise to live my life like this. I can’t make myself suffer this. There must be something else to do, some way to escape. But it was too late. I had made up my mind. No matter what, I had to carry through my decision.
“So you have decided to come back?” The mother superior asked me.
I did not know what to think. My mind was not working. Again, the words simply rolled out.
“Yes, I have. It is a good way to live. It is the best thing.” I suddenly wondered why I said exactly what Auntie told me. “But the world now is too violent and dangerous.”
“There is a refuge in God,” she said gently. I did not want to hear her.
“So shall I become a nun?” It was the question most tearing at my heart, I had to know my destiny.
“I think in this time of war, it is best if you perhaps live like a nun, but not with the binding promises. I believe many people may want to begin a new life after the war is over. I don’t think we can make long last decisions right now, because no one knows how it shall end.”
I wanted to laugh giddily, and dance. I think it was because I was tired. But in the haze of my mind I knew one thing – I should be free. There would be no life of drudgery and servitude in order to outlive the war. After it was all over, I could do anything I pleased.
I thanked the mother superior, and she advised me to go lay down. I probably looked a little dazed.  I collapsed on my old bed, it was so comfortable and welcoming now. When I woke up I realized it was probably dinner time, or later. I was very hungry, and went to see if there was anything left. The others were just finishing their meal. When I walked into the room, they all stopped, spoons paused in midair, and looked at me. I wanted to sink into the ground, I hadn’t the least idea why they gave me such strange looks.
“Catherine has come back to stay with us, sisters,” the mother superior said briskly. I felt their resentment at once, when I asked for something to eat. Then it was clear: I was simply one more to spread to the sparse food to. My staying would mean everyone would get a little less, so that I could eat. I didn’t want to cause them any inconvenience, but what else could I do?
“She’s come back to be fed, that’s what it is. Doesn’t think of us, hardly enough to eat anyways. But young people are like that, just as selfish as could be,” someone murmured in the kitchen. I blushed, for the second time in my life. I was ashamed partly because that was indeed, one reason why I returned, and because they made me sound so wicked and conniving. After eating my thin soup that was more like muddy water, I went back to my room. It was very cold, and I shivered under the blankets. For the first time in a while there were no sounds to wake me, no marching armies, no screaming women or children, no crackling devouring fires. It was peaceful. But I was frightened. The silence was more dangerous to me than the noise. I felt locked up, away from the world. A form of solitary confinement…I thought bitterly…those horrible crimes are still happening, I just can’t hear them. The deadly muteness threatened me with imagined voices and sounds. Restlessly, I at last fell asleep.
But I had a dream. I was sitting on my cot, and a soldier came in. He stomped his way over to me, and stood, smelling of beer, cigars, blood, and sauerkraut, over me. I cringed and tried to turn away. He grabbed my neck and mumbled something in garbled German. He took out a sharp, shiny knife.
“This is for those who lie. Those who are self-centered. Those who pretend they are righteous, and are not. Those who take food from the mouths of the innocent. I shall either use this,” he ran his finger across the blade, “or burn you alive in this room.” I shook at the thought of dying in a fire. He took advantage of my fear. “I think that is the best way to remove hypocrites from the world.” He took a match from his pocket, pulled the blanket off my bed and made a pile in the middle of the floor with it. “What is in that box?” he demanded. I could not answer. He opened it, and found all the letters from my parents. “Perfect tinder,” he muttered.  He crumpled the papers up on the blanket. “I’ll light the match, and as soon as the paper has caught fire, I’ll leave, and lock the door after me. I’d better tie you up, so you don’t escape.” He used his belt to wrap me to the bed frame. Then, holding the match firmly, he lit it, and carefully dropped in among the love letters from a French woman. The greedy flame consumed the first sheet within seconds, and then the man left. I heard him bar the door. With agonizing awareness, I watched the fire spread and grow. It charred the blanket, and crept closer to the bed. Then in a moment it caught the mattress, and the straw inside. Another moment, and it was inches from my body. I could feel the intense heat, and screamed.
I woke up, sweating and throwing the covers off me. I looked around desperately for the fire, but there was none. The fear choked my throat, I could not swallow. Oh, no, I can’t live like this. Please, I must escape, I must do something to get away. It will be like this every night. Every night I shall be haunted and teased by what I have done. So I worried and fretted until morning came.
Thus was my first night back at St. Margaret’s Nunnery.

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