Sister James prides herself on leading a virtuous life -- or she would if she believed in pride. She is faithful, obedient, compassionate. She's everything she was taught to be and everything that she fundamentally is.
Because of these inherent qualities and beliefs, Sister James is at a loss to figure out why nighttime has become her enemy.
Perhaps it's because of the sacrifices. She's given up so much -- willingly, of course -- in order to devote herself fully to God. She took her vows at a young age before she could fully succumb to baser human behaviors.
She has dreams, dreams that she never quite remembers in the morning. The dreams are unsettling and confusing.
She wakes up in a sweat. She feels things that she's never felt before, things that she thought she'd avoid by becoming a nun. She knows what it means to feel these things and doesn't understand why it's happening to her.
Her body has turned against her.
There are some nights when Sister James is undressing out of her habit and takes longer than necessary to clothe herself in her sleep frock. It's becoming a frequent activity as of late. She does not have a mirror, but in the dim lighting of her small room she looks down at herself and stares at the curves that have become her enemy.
She has always been at odds with her body. Puberty was a particularly terrifying experience that still haunts her in flashes of red and white. When her body began to change, she felt as though she were being invaded. She cried when her breasts began to develop, when the hair began to grow, when the blood came.
The first time she felt sensations between her legs, she scrubbed herself in the bath until she was raw. She never felt anything like that again.
Not until recently.
The air is cold in her room and her nipples have begun to tighten. The sight of it makes her queasy. The feelings start, and she pulls her shift over her head and climbs into bed.
She will not give in so easily.
Sister James is a determined woman, but even she cannot control her dreams.
After several weeks of these memory-less dreams, she is assaulted by fragmented memories.
She's dreamt of hands scrawling delicately with a pencil. Soft hands. Mature, lined, feminine hands.
She doesn't know to whom the hands belong, but she knows that her own hands have clenched tight fistfuls of cotton sheet upon waking.
She trembles all day.
The night sweats are joined, several days later, by dampened undergarments. Sister James fears that she's started her monthlies or wet herself and is only convinced that she hasn't by getting out of bed and checking her mattress. It is dry and she is bloodless, but she is skeptical. She is only satisfied after she smells her sheets.
She changes her undergarments immediately, wipes herself until she is uncomfortably dry and begins to chafe, and prays to God that she will not be stricken by this condition again.
Her prayers remain unanswered. She continues to rise in the morning with her feminine parts slick with foreign moisture. Her face burns hot with shame.
She is afraid to sleep, afraid of what might come next.
She wakes herself up in the middle of the night, sticking her hand under her nightgown to check her undergarments. Her fingers press against something hard and sensitive and she gasps, reddens, and vows never to put her hand there again.
Sister James feels she may be losing her grip on her sanity. She wakes often throughout the night, plagued by dreams and throbs and unnerving wetness.
Sister Aloysius has begun to notice her increased fatigue. Sister James attempts to hide it, but there's something about Sister Aloysius that makes her keenly aware of what Sister James is feeling.
"I can't sleep."
"Perhaps we're not meant to sleep."
Sister James has heard these words before. In the past, when she was tormented by her suspicions regarding Father Flynn, she couldn't sleep. She was wracked by guilt.
She has nothing to which she can contribute her current feelings.
Sister Aloysius begins to make more frequent rounds of her classroom, though Sister James is acutely aware of her superior's eyes. They are less focused on the students and are trained instead in a curious study of her mannerisms. It causes her voice to catch in her throat and her hands to clench harder around the history textbook.
Sister Aloysius is so caught up in her staring that she misses Molly Hughes passing a note to Laura Davies.
For the first time, Sister James sells out her students in order to take the attention away from herself.
She sickens herself with guilt and shame. She questions her selfish actions and hides in repentant prayer for hours.
It's becoming too much to handle.
When Sister James wakes up in the middle of the night with her gown bunched between her thighs, she begins to cry.
She doesn't understand why this is happening to her or why she cannot seem to control her body. She doesn't understand why this is progressing this way.
She's scared of how it may culminate.
"I want you to know," Sister Aloysius begins, "that you can talk to me."
Sister James knows to what her superior is referring, but chooses not to be baited. "That's very kind of you, Sister. Thank you."
"I'm not saying this as your superior. I'm offering as…a friend."
Sister James stops erasing the chalkboard when Sister Aloysius says this and takes in the serious sincerity on the older woman's face. She feels the words filling her mouth, the unanswered questions and the secrets, but she can't find the resolve to utter them aloud. Wrapping her voice around the words and issuing them to another human being is more than she can handle.
She doesn't want to make it real by speaking it.
"Thank you," she says again, and Sister Aloysius frowns.
That night, Sister James wakes up wet and crying.
As she's wiping her tears on the back of her sleeve, her door opens and Sister Aloysius enters.
"I'm sorry…I…" Sister James sniffs. She feels exposed in this state of undress, even if Sister Aloysius is similarly clothed. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"This isn't the first night you've woken me up with your crying. Compose yourself and tell me what's wrong so we can both get some sleep."
Surprisingly, Sister James feels her tears subside. It frightens her to realize just how easily she responds to Sister Aloysius. It should unsettle her more than it does. She folds her hands in her lap and regards the older woman as she stands by the door. Sister Aloysius holds the ends of her black shawl together and stares back expectantly.
Sister James feels the words fill her mouth once again, feels the proof of her words between her legs, and finds that she cannot find the courage to speak. She wishes that she could be like Sister Aloysius with her candor, or like a priest. She thinks of his freedom on the pulpit, his ability to confess his sins under the cover of a sermon. She can barely admit her sins to herself.
Sister Aloysius steps forward and seats herself at the foot of the small bed. "You must confess, Sister James. Confess to a priest or confess to me. You will not sleep otherwise."
Sister James knows that she's right, but she is not ready. She lowers her head, attempting not to cry. Sister Aloysius places her hand over her own and stays until she falls asleep.
The sensations are becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore. She is aware of them when she walks, when she sits, when she stands. It distracts her and unsettles her.
For the first time in her life, she considers doing something about it.
Sister James has begun to think about pleasure.
She has enjoyed simple pleasures in life. She always has, even before taking her vows. She takes great pleasure in watching the leaves change color or watching flowers bloom, in watching her students understand a difficult concept in class, in seeing kindness amongst strangers.
She has even, on rare occasions, allowed herself minor bodily pleasures. She's sighed over a hot cup of flavored tea and savored each bite of freshly baked bread. She remembers the greedy thrill she experienced as a child while eating a piece of birthday cake. She enjoys the thrill of indulging in food this way. It's one of the few gratifying bodily responses that she experiences.
Any further indulgences make her feel guilty.
Why aren't these simple pleasures enough?
After another sleepless night, Sister James notices something that unsettles her and distracts her throughout the day. As she casts a watchful eye over the cramped hallways while students file between lockers and classes, she somehow happens to spot Brady Wallace and Molly Hughes sharing a kiss.
It always surprises her to see that intimacy exists between children so young. The kiss lasts for only a moment; Molly pulls away almost as soon as he presses his lips to hers. She looks around to make sure they haven't been caught and she blushes, tucking her chin to her chest while the smile spreads over her face.
Sister James has never experienced something like this before, but she can see the truth behind this smile. It's the smile of a child, no longer a little girl. She's not quite a young woman, but this intimate touch has changed her. She's grown up.
Brady's reaction is similar. His eyes have a sheen of surprise to them and his smile is goofy and wide. Both seem to have been transformed by this kiss.
She watches them throughout the rest of the day. While they're in class, she can see how this simple kiss has metamorphosed these sullen adolescents into bright-eyed, happy individuals.
All it took was a kiss.
A pleasure of the body.
After having seen physical evidence of the positive side effects of pleasures of the flesh, Sister James wonders how they can be so wrong.
The following night is not an easy one.
She sleeps for only an hour or two before dreams of flexing hands and long fingers force her awake. She can feel the energy in her body humming like a swarm of bees, radiating like fire from between her legs. Sister James stares at the window, watching the moonlight filter through the filmy curtains. She focuses on the criss-crossed patterns that are strewn over her blankets, at the straight lines and patterns distorted as they fall over the curves of her body.
She thinks of her students.
Before school let out, she witnessed Brady helping a rival student pick up his fallen books. She's seen them fist-fight in the courtyard, heard them declare nothing but hatred for one another.
A silly rivalry ended because of a kiss.
She's never felt the kiss of a companion. She's been kissed by relatives, but the sensation is hardly the same.
Sister James feels herself wandering into dangerous territory. She cannot allow herself to want these things, to consider what they might be like.
Her mind jumps to images of Father Flynn. The heat in her body is extinguished and replaced by ice as she contemplates what he may have done for the sake of his own pleasure. She doesn't like to guess at what she doesn't know for sure, but there are details that she cannot deny.
Sister James does not want to be like Father Flynn. He may have committed heinous crimes against a child in order to gain -- what? Satisfaction? Pleasure? A full night's rest?
She will not be like him.
A week later, Sister James wakes up with a pillow bunched between her thighs. Her body is strung taut and her breathing is heavy.
Though groggy from sleep, she is swift in her movements. She pulls the pillow from between her legs and forces it beneath her head. She straightens her gown and is dismayed to realize that there is a damp patch in the middle of the white cotton. Her pillow smells strange and heady.
She cries for the remainder of the night.
Her class is taking an exam. She watches their little heads as they bend over their papers, pouring their knowledge through the graphite of their pencils onto the packets before them. It reassures her to know that, while she's falling apart in her own mind, she's still able to fulfill her job as an educator.
She thinks of her own Educator, her Savior. She's worked all her short life to follow in His footsteps. She's taken her vows and it is through these vows that she is able to imitate His life. She can think of no greater thing than to be like Him, to be good and giving and pure.
So many men and women before her have made these sacrifices for His sake and for the sake of humankind. They are the vessels through which His holy word is spread.
She feels as though her vessel is tainted. Broken.
Has she failed Him? Have these uncontrollable urges contaminated the light that is meant to shine through her?
Perhaps she hasn't failed Him.
She is certain that she has failed herself.
Sister James has heard students and parents alike joke about how nuns are impervious to almost anything. They act as if the vows have enhanced their genetic material, as if they're angels on earth.
Sister James has a sneaking suspicion that angels don't faint from sleep deprivation in the middle of a crowded lunchroom.
When she comes to, Sister James is confused. She's lying in her bed. Sister Aloysius is sitting beside her, holding her hand. When the older woman notices that she's awake, she jolts.
"What happened?" Sister James asks. Her head hurts. Little lights flash in her eyes.
"You fainted. Smacked your head on the floor."
"You're still not sleeping." It's not a question.
"That ends tonight."
Sister James feels hot and cold at once. She has no idea what that entails but does not doubt that Sister Aloysius will make things right.
Sister James is finishing her evening prayers and preparing to slip into bed when there is a faint knock at the door. She doesn't need to play a guessing game to figure out who it is. When Sister Aloysius enters, the younger nun's heart pounds a little faster.
Sister James gets off her knees and stands beside the bed, waiting. Sister Aloysius closes the door behind her. The click is loud in Sister James's ears.
"I will stay with you tonight," Sister Aloysius says. She crosses the room and stands parallel to Sister James. "We will discover what's at the root of your restlessness and fix it."
Sister James did not know what to expect, but this had not been it. She blanches. "I…that's not really necessary, Sister."
"I expect nothing more than excellence in my teachers," Sister Aloysius explains as she turns down the sheets. "You have not been up to par, Sister James." She sits on the edge of the bed and draws up her legs, tucking them beneath the fold of blankets. "You need to rest."
The younger woman swallows. She's never been so scared in her life. She's never slept beside another person before. She doesn't like to make a habit of speculation, but the "what if's" whir through her mind so quickly that she feels dizzy.
"Get into bed, Sister James." The older woman slowly removes her glasses, folding the stems before she carefully sets them on the little table beside the bed. She raises an eyebrow and motions pointedly at the remaining half of the bed.
Sister James knows better than to ignore the finality in her superior's voice. She climbs into bed, settling in beside the other woman. She underestimates the size of the bed and is surprised when the entire left side of her body is pressed against another human being's.
She hadn't been anticipating the solidity or warmth of Sister Aloysius. She draws herself in, lying rigid and tense. She pulls the blankets to her chin while Sister Aloysius turns off the lamp.
"Relax," Sister Aloysius barks, settling onto her side. She faces away from the younger woman. "I won't bite."
Sister James stares at the ceiling. She listens to the steady rise and fall of her companion's chest, catches the faint whir of breath as it escapes her nose. From this proximity, Sister James can smell the soap on her body.
Sleep does not come easily.
Sister James opens her eyes at the sound of the hiss in her ear. She is disoriented and blinks several times in her attempt to get her bearings.
Several things hit her at once. She's burning up and she's throbbing all over. Her head is propped on the other woman's shoulder. One of her superior's legs is between her own.
It is the last detail that is the most shocking and mortifying for Sister James to register as not being part of a dream. She has no idea how Sister Aloysius came to be lying on her back, or how Sister James managed to contort her body around the other woman's.
What is more embarrassing for Sister James to realize is that the other woman's thigh is hard and hot between her legs. She still hasn't moved.
She bolts upright, shifting her body away from Sister Aloysius until she is nearly falling off the bed. She wants to cry, wants to throw up, wants to beg for God to strike her dead.
The younger woman wishes that she could disappear. "I'm so sorry, Sister. I…I don't know…" she responds meekly, hiding her face in her hands.
"Is that what's causing your restlessness?"
Sister James nods but does not uncover her face. She can feel the stinging tears spring to her eyes. She starts when she feels a hand on her shoulder, pulling her back down to lie against the mattress.
"You've done nothing about it?"
"No!" Sister James cries, attempting to sit up again. When Sister Aloysius holds her down, she lets out a strangled sigh. "Of course I haven't!"
"Even if it would bring an end to this?"
"I c-can't," Sister James says with a hiccup, tears freely beginning to fall. "My vows…"
"You've vowed to commit your body and soul to God." Sister Aloysius clears her throat and licks her lip. "You cannot fulfill your vows if you neglect the needs of your body. This is your temple that you are tampering with."
"Sister, I can't--"
"Sister James, what you are feeling is natural. Every human body responds in such a manner."
"It will happen, either voluntarily or involuntarily. It's just a matter of time."
"I won't do it. I couldn't live with myself." Sister James feels Sister Aloysius exhale hard against her cheek. The warm gust of air tingles against her wet face. Her heart is pounding hard. Her body is still humming with unsatisfied need. She's so incredibly tired. Sister James lets out a sob. "I just want this to be over."
Sister James is powerless to explain what happens next. When she feels Sister Aloysius shift to her side and sneak her arm beneath the blankets, she freezes. She can feel her hand tugging at the hem of her nightgown.
"What are you doing, Sister?" Sister James asks, pushing her gown back down.
"Quiet now." The words are hard. Final.
Sister James holds her breath while her gown is pulled up to her waist and she is forced to release it in a surprised gasp when a hand slips inside her thin cotton undergarments. Her face is on fire, burning as bright as the copper of her hair that remains hidden beneath her bonnet. She closes her eyes. She can't look.
She attempts to squirm away from the searching hand of her superior. She feels sick with shame when the other woman's fingers brush against her hair, the feeling intensified when Sister Aloysius discovers just how slick with moisture she truly is. Sister James thinks she hears a stifled gasp but cannot be sure because of the roaring in her ears.
When Sister Aloysius touches her there, Sister James waits for the rest of her body to break. She expects to be struck down, to be in pain, to be so disgusted with herself that she finds the strength to put a stop to it.
None of that happens. Sister Aloysius is gentle in her movements. She touches the hardened nub and Sister James must stifle a gasp. It amazes her how good this feels. She feels this way only when she is fully absorbed in prayer. For the first time outside of her utterances of devotion and reflection, Sister James feels her body singularly focused on one purpose. She feels not like she is filled with darkness but with light, radiating through each and every cell in her body. Fingers flex and rub against her, spreading her wetness and drawing out sensations in places that Sister James never knew existed on her body. She seems almost separate from this experience, like she is somehow transposed onto a higher level. It's as if Sister Aloysius's hand is not just between her legs but everywhere, caressing her face and arms and legs and back.
She begins to tremble and she cannot control the short, clipped sounds that are coming from her throat. She's never made sounds like this before. It's as if she's become an entirely new being.
Sister James can feel the impending moment begin to approach. Sister Aloysius must have sensed it; her fingers begin to move faster and more deliberately. Sister James wishes she had the presence of mind to wonder how Sister Aloysius knows how to do these things.
When it hits her, Sister James opens her mouth and issues a silent, strangled scream. Though she is unable to make a sound, Sister Aloysius maneuvers her free hand over her mouth.
She feels as though her entire body, which had been pulled taut like a rubber band, explodes forth in a frenzy of convulsions. She shakes and quivers against the other woman and the hot, comforting light becomes blinding.
When the pulsing slows and finally stops, Sister James falls back against the bed. Her limbs may very well be replaced with rubber. The remaining tension in her body oozes out like the copious slickness between her legs, but she is not concerned with the mess at the moment. She is concerned with nothing.
She has never felt this level of blissful relaxation.
Sleep begins to tug at her once more, attempting to lull her back into a dream-filled state. She finds it easy to follow.
Sister Aloysius pulls her hand free of her undergarments and Sister James opens her eyes. She blinks several times, attempting to focus on the face of the woman lying beside her. She cannot read the expression on her face.
The older woman shifts, preparing to ease herself out of bed. Sister James worries that Sister Aloysius will leave and sits up as well, cupping her hand around the column of her arm. Overcome by impulse, Sister James leans in and places a tender kiss on Sister Aloysius's mouth. "Thank you, Sister," she whispers.
Sister Aloysius nods and gets out of bed. She crosses the room and wipes her hand on the towel hanging on the hook by the bureau. Sister James watches her, wanting to invite her to stay. Her eyes are heavy.
She gives in to sleep when Sister Aloysius slides back into bed beside her.
Sister Aloysius has no trouble sleeping.
She should. By scripture and by her vows, she should be troubled.
Sister Aloysius feels no guilt or remorse in the way she bends scripture to suit her needs or in the way her mortal sins have clung to her like a second skin. She accepts these things but does not feel less close to God as a result of them.
In fact, Sister Aloysius prides herself for protecting Sister James. She's noticed a remarkable change in the young woman. The pallor in her cheeks is now infused with color.
It makes Sister Aloysius smile to see it.
Sister James is pure, like snow. She is fresh and sweet.
Sister Aloysius will nurture the young nun, will see to it that she honors the temple of her body. She will not allow the light inside of her to extinguish.