Sisters of the Snow
On a chill mid-November evening, Sister Anastasia curled into the alcove of her closet-sized room and took in the West Virginia landscape outside the window. The sun dipped below the surrounding Alleghenies, gilded the trees that crowned the nearby ridge, and sank into the Earth. A roof of leaden clouds rolled in, hastening the darkness. Anastasia cracked the window, sniffed for any scent of change in the air.
After the bright-lit corridors and atriums at Johns Hopkins, the sunless hallways of the cloister disheartened Anastasia. The scatter of books on the parlor shelves stood in contrast to the lacquered, high-walled library where she’d read modern poetry and prepared lessons as one of the junior faculty. When she needed to breathe, she slipped out to the woods, fields, and trails around the convent. They offered a sheltering solitude, away from cloistered life and worlds away from the rattle of downtown Baltimore.
The band of outcasts she’d joined kept apart from the mountain people around them. Business, health, and errands were the only reasons they left their surroundings. Only the mailman stopped by. The day Anastasia accompanied Sister Brigid to the hardware in Marlinton, clerks and customers stared shamelessly, even though the two women wore work clothes. People knew. When they left the store, Brigid said, “They think we’re witches.” Anastasia smiled under her hand.
Mother Egidia reached out to her last December: a recruitment letter, an interview at Anastasia’s Baltimore apartment, a visit to the cemetery. Egidia’s story moved her. At Saint Anthony’s parish, her pastor, Father Fagan, drove his black Grand Marquis around town, bedecked in the round-rimmed fedora he’d left in her bedroom on his last night visit. Her child was sent somewhere she’d never know.
At first, Anastasia thought Egidia might be unbalanced, but she’d kept in contact and changed her mind. When she accepted, Egidia told her not to bring anything unnecessary. She packed her poetry—Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, anthologies to cover the rest. She understood her scholarship was a reason she’d been chosen. That and her history.
On settling in, it was the vigil and the comfort of remembering together in silence that sustained her. The Sisters of the Snow began their formal watch in early autumn. Anastasia couldn’t wait till then and began a routine soon after she arrived, right after spring thaw. It didn’t matter that the snow would not come soon. She sat as if each evening by itself might bridge the distance from spring till snow.
To pass the days, she took the lead from the others. After breakfast, she helped put up the preserves and the bake the quick breads, muffins, and pies that stocked the cafés in Snowshoe and other towns. For the cold season to come, Egidia assigned her to fill the pantry and freezer with the flawed and unsold fruits of their labors. She composed new meditations, as requested by Egidia. She cut wood in the afternoon, another welcome time outdoors, although it took weeks to discover the release of swinging the axe vigorously. After dinner, she sat with the others in the front parlor and joined in the mending by the light of the pom-pom lamps. There was no radio or television, and one computer, business only. The only human interactions were their seeking eyes and murmurs floating in the semi-dark.
On this Saturday night, as blue-black clouds billowed over the mountains, Anastasia slipped under her quilt, rested her head on the pillow. She thought of one thing, one spirit, as she’d done every night for three years. Lyra. The wobble-kneed ice skating at the Pandora rink along the Inner Harbor. Six birthday parties, a seventh they’d been looking forward to. Her daughter’s four-year progress at the Montessori near Fels Point. New memories rose to the surface like bubbles in Lyra’s baths. She fell asleep in mid-fantasy.
In the still-dark of early Sunday, she awoke and resumed her reverie. At bedtime, Lyra—mother and father trailing—had marched onto the piano mat in her bedroom and toed the button that sequenced through the pre-set tunes. She always stopped at “Hot Dog Man.” They knew the words by heart, and now Anastasia sang under her breath about the woman who loved the man who ran the hot dog stand, and how she planned to be his wife.
As her voice began to quiver, a soft knock sounded on her door, and Sister Hedwig hurried into the room. Anastasia’s face stiffened as the nun knelt and whispered:
She sat up on the edge of the bed and peered into the sister’s face, as if the snow might fall straight from Hedwig’s eyes. She rushed to the window, parted the curtains, and took in the soft-falling flakes until Hedwig spoke.
“We have to go.”
“What told you?”
“It kissed the ground outside my window.”
Anastasia dressed quickly, paused at the book resting on her nightstand. It was open to the page she visited every day. Words were crossed out and written over, and the margins were crammed with scribbles. She placed the bookmark in it, the one with Lyra written on it, then picked it up and walked out. She started down the long hallway to join the other six waiting at the front door, sped up when she saw how restless they were. Egidia nodded and they moved out. A veil of snow fell before them in the darkness, and the soft hiss of snowflakes gave backdrop to the silent air. Anastasia took her place at the rear of the column.
Seven women in flowing black vestments and sturdy black shoes with block heels moved past the small pond behind the convent and toward the deep wood that lay at the bottom of the downslope. They moved by the bottled moonlight in the cloud cover and a few flashlights casting beams here and there. When the light hit just right, wet snow jeweled the folds of their habits. They stepped carefully through a stretch of criss-crossing roots, and Anastasia almost tripped. She righted herself, hurried to catch up, clenching her book tightly. When they reached the path leading in, Egidia turned and inspected them. Her eyes met Anastasia’s and she smiled grimly before resuming the procession. Sister Brigid, from East Boston, walked behind Egidia. Sister Hedwig, from Atlantic City, and Sister Lucy, from Philadelphia, walked in tandem in the middle of the file, each gripping a side handle of a small oaken crate. From the back of the line, Anastasia caught glimpses of one or the other as the line twisted and turned. They seemed like parents holding the hands of their toddler between them. Sister Ursula, from the Washington Highlands projects, walked behind them. Sister Yasmin, from San Juan, walked just ahead. Anastasia thought that the procession might look from above like a cross moving slowly through the trees.
Once in the wood, the line of nuns stepped more briskly. The snow was sparse under the canopy, and pine straw softened their footfall through the winding up-and-down trail. Then the snowfall stopped, and fragments of moonlight brightened their way intermittently until the full moon shone steadily. They vaulted a narrow runnel, water flowing fast. They slowed as a circular clearing loomed into view, covered by a silvery whiteness reflecting moonlight from above. Egidia stepped aside, and her followers positioned themselves around the circle’s edge, careful not to taint the scene prematurely. When Anastasia reached her assigned place, she breathed again and took in the moist, iron smell of the snow. She felt like a wide-eyed innocent in a fairy tale.
Egidia nodded and Brigid tinkled her little bell, the one she used to call the sisters to devotions. Hedwig and Lucy carried the crate in a straight line to the center of the clearing and placed it on the small mound they’d built there. They walked back along the same tracks to the fringe of the circle and took their places.
Brigid sounded her bell again, and each of them withdrew a single-edge razor blade from the sleeve of her habit, unwrapped it, and took a step forward into the clearing. Anastasia observed the others, then cut an L into the first layer of flesh on her forearm as she moved forward. She winced at the sting, began to swoon as the incision pulsed, but caught herself. The air filled with a thick milk of pleasure. As Anastasia moved toward the center with the others, her blood dripped, staining the snow. A wheel of dotted red spokes extended from the crate.
The blood incited a memory, the last moments of her family. Three years ago, she’d rushed out the kitchen door into the deep snow of the back yard, Lyra in hand. Her husband caught up and wrenched her around by the shoulders. She read the cold click in his face, suffered his slaps and punches, their child kicking at his legs. Lyra’s father shoved his daughter hard, and she landed facedown in the snow and cried out. The steel rake had been covered by the snow, tines up. The approaching sirens wailed, drowning Anastasia’s sobs.
She watched as each of the nuns shed her habit and undergarments. Brigid’s and Ursula’s nakedness revealed scars suffered in defense of their children. Anastasia was the last to disrobe. The cold air invigorated her, and she felt warmed as she embraced the others in turn. Egidia opened the lock on the crate and lifted the hinged lid. Resting inside were remnants of their children: a tiny hospital wristband, a yellow cotton blanket, a teal 1948 Ford model pickup, a purple velvet bag of ashes, a sparkly plastic horse, a blue satin hair ribbon, and a rainbow-shaded piano mat. Into that sepulchre, each nun dripped her blood and spoke the soft name of her innocent: Clement … Fiona … Daniel … Zoe … Claire … Gabriel … Lyra. After much silence, Egidia nodded and Brigid tinkled the bell. Yasmin retrieved antiseptic pads and large bandages from her habit and treated her own wound, then attended to the others. As Hedwig and Lucy lowered the lid, Anastasia stepped forward and stopped them. She reached into the crate and pressed the button on the mat a few times until “Hot Dog Man” began playing. The nuns stood naked and still around the crate and listened as Anastasia sang along in a barely audible voice. When it ended, Anastasia had the moment she’d been seeking. She drew back and Egidia locked the crate.
All the nuns except one focused on the top of the crate, where seven short phrases were emblazoned in smoky black. Each had taken a turn with the wood-burning tool, etching a few words from the poem their new sister had chosen. Anastasia’s eyes fixed on the open page of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. She’d revisited her paraphrase of Stevens so many times, that she navigated easily through the markups. She read the stanza slowly, with careful emphasis, the way she’d read to Lyra at bedtime. As light from the climbing sun filtered through the trees and the moon above the clearing faded into the coloring sky, the others took in each word, as if the images were carving into their oaken souls on this Sunday morning:
Somber and resolute, a ring of women
Shall chant in anguish on a wintry morn
Their ardent devotion to the snow,
Not as a goddess, but as a goddess might be,
Naked among them, with a savage strength.
Their chant shall be a chant of communion,
Out of their blood, returning to the earth;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The icy lake wherein their spirits sink,
The trees, afflicted, the echoing hills,
That keen among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the sorrowed fellowship
Of children taken early and unremitting grief.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The snow upon their feet shall manifest.