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the sky is empty

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I talk to God but the sky is empty. 

― Sylvia Plath

 

The Christmas pageant is coming up fast, much faster than Sister James had hoped. The memory of Sister Aloysius on that cold afternoon still hangs over her, fresh and sharp as snow. She remembers the way the older woman didn’t shy away from her touch, allowing James to rest her head on Aloysius’ leg. It was a comforting gesture, for both Aloysius and James— but the younger woman can’t forget how warm the older woman was despite the cold, despite her anguish, despite everything. How Aloysius clung to James’ back, as if her doubts would swallow her whole otherwise. That James could save her.

 

Sister James can’t do anything of the sort. But it’s a nice thought, one that she certainly won’t soon forget.

 

Aloysius refuses to let the children sing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” However, she does allow them to perform “Frosty the Snowman” for their pageant. She doesn’t say anything to Sister James about this and Sister James doesn’t say anything to her about it, but they both know that this is an apology; for everything, yet nothing at all.

 

Sister James has noticed a shift in their relationship. They were already colleagues and friends but there’s a change in the air, something new and exciting that makes James’ face heat up when Aloysius looks at her. James doesn’t know much about love or lust and she has vows to follow, but she can’t help but wonder what it would be like to kiss Aloysius’ skin, free of the heavy fabric of her habit.

 

So while “Frosty the Snowman” is a kind gesture, it does little to eliminate the doubts Sister James holds to her heart like a flame. Yes, she has such doubts.

 

___

 

Sister Aloysius is a stranger to happiness. Conceptually, she knows what it is, but in actuality she’s unacquainted with it. She thinks she might have been happy with her husband before he passed away but then again, she doesn’t have anything to compare a fading memory to.

 

Sister James, she thinks, is happiness personified. She’s young and warm, her future shining with an ethereal kind of light, paved with opportunities and memories yet to be made, lessons to be learned. James isn’t stagnant like she is, dead and cold inside. Aloysius is well past the prime of her life and has consequently dedicated the rest of her life to helping those who are. Putting them in God’s good graces, teaching children to distinguish between good and bad, fighting for morality and purity.

 

Meanwhile her doubts twist and coil inside of her, like a spring about to snap. It’s not that she doubts what Father Flynn has done— Aloysius is as sure of his sins as she is the rise and fall of the sun. No, what troubles her and keeps her up at night is the thought of Sister James. When she saw the girl cry for her, cry for Aloysius and Father Flynn’s sins, Aloysius wanted to tell her to stop. Until that moment she hadn’t believed that hearts could really break, especially hers. Aloysius can’t help but feel that she is corrupting and ruining this girl, as if her disgrace is contagious.

 

She’s falling free from the sky in a mess of white feathers and cloud, crashing into the darkness, which screams and scalds her skin.

 

___

 

Sister James still believes in God. No matter what atrocities take place on Earth, she knows with certainty that this is all part of His Divine Plan, that someday she’ll be able to make sense of it all.

 

The virtue of her character, however, is a much more widely contested point of discussion. She is not nearly as naive or content as she was upon the start of the year, is well aware of this, but the thought doesn’t settle well. She dislikes the fact that she isn’t as good as she used to be and that she’s past a time of such happy oblivion.

 

“You haven’t eaten anything since this morning,” Aloysius says, her voice different from its typical briskness. Warmer, somehow, realer. “You must take better care of yourself.” When Sister James looks up, she is met with concerned grey eyes.

 

“I’m just not feeling well,” James offers halfheartedly. It’s the truth, though not to the full extent. “I think I may be catching a cold, the changing of seasons and whatnot.”

 

The older woman’s face remains passive as she presses a hand to James’ forehead. “No fever, at least. Have you been getting enough sleep?”

 

Sister James lies awake in bed until dawn with unholy thoughts of her superior’s mouth and hands. “As good as I can get.” She flushes a little, the prolonged contact overwhelming her senses. “How do you sleep at night?”

 

At this, Aloysius scowls and removes her hand. James feels the loss as keenly as the absence of oxygen in the air or blood in her body. “I sleep perfectly fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some duties to attend to.” James takes the hint to leave Aloysius’ office and does so, deeply regretting her choice of words.

 

Aloysius watches the girl carefully as she scurries off, curiosity pulling at her like she’s attached to a string. She thinks that Sister James may have doubts of her own, though is uncertain of what they could possibly be.

 

___

 

Sister James splashes cold water onto her face. In between her legs she is hot and swollen and she hates it. Traitorous body, traitorous mind. Lust seems so appealing when it’s not driving her to madness, when it just nudges at her as Aloysius touches her wrist or hand in passing.

 

It used to be so hard for her to hate anything, in a time Before. That’s what she’s calling it now, the realisation following shortly after Father Flynn’s resignation. She becomes slick and wet when she thinks about Sister Aloysius, which disgusts her. James should not be thinking of her superior in such an degrading manner, who has treated her with an uncharacteristic amount of kindness and thoughtfulness since her arrival.

 

Of course, fate has it that a quick staccato of knocks sounds at her door. “Sister James?”

 

SIster James flounders for a moment. She’s wearing nothing but a nightgown which only reaches her knee, her habit and bonnet elusive. It will be obvious what she has been doing, legs still sticky and face burning.

 

When the knocks grow more insistent, James swings open the door. Her throat tightens when she sees Sister Aloysius standing there, in a nightgown similar to hers, hair down. She has only seen Aloysius without her bonnet once, and now she freely admires the way the older woman’s blonde locks falls in waves, just beginning to turn grey.

 

“I apologise for bothering you,” Aloysius says absentmindedly, as if out of habit. She doesn’t seem to notice James gawking at her, if so she does not comment on it. “I simply cannot sleep tonight and I knew you were awake as well.”

 

Not trusting herself to supply an adequate answer to that, Sister James just nods and stands back so Aloysius can enter.

 

“You have doubts.” The older woman states this as a fact and James’ stomach churns. Does she know? Has she given it away? “I want to know what they are.” Aloysius perches herself on the edge of the bed, the mattress dipping as she does so. Her eyes study James carefully over the rims of her spectacles. “Well?”

 

Oh. James is not at all comforted by the fact that Aloysius doesn’t yet know of her thoughts, because she will soon. But she tries to fabricate stories and excuses, all of which Aloysius is highly skeptical of.

 

“No,” she says firmly. “I want the truth from you, Sister James. I know something’s wrong and need answers.” Aloysius’ face softens marginally. “I can help you if you tell me what it is.” Though looking hesitant, she reaches out to touch James’ face. Her fingers don’t linger; they brush her cheek and dance down to her chin.

 

Sister James should be uncomfortable with this but she eases into the older woman’s touch, feeling more relaxed than she has in so long. Maybe God is wrong. There is something so good and so right in touching Aloysius, being touched by her. How could her love for this woman, so intense and unyielding, be bad?

 

“Oh,” she breathes, this intimate moment an entire revelation. James yearns to share this with Aloysius, she’s suddenly so determined to make the older woman understand what she feels. “I love you.”

 

Aloysius’ hand freezes and goes stiff, but she thankfully doesn’t pull away. Her grey eyes, usually unreadable, flicker from panic to grief to resignation— all in the span of a second. “You’re very young,” Aloysius says very quietly. “You don’t know what love is yet.”

 

James’ first instinct is to tell her she’s wrong. Her second is to just kiss her. She chooses the second and without a word, leans in to press her lips to the older woman’s. 

 

Aloysius does not move away. She does not even seem surprised by the kiss. Her mouth meets James’ with a hunger to match the younger woman’s, urgent and sharp. Soon they’re both lying down on the bed, teeth and tongue joining the equation. Fingers steal past silk nightgowns to touch and caress and feel everything they can find.

 

James is breathing heavily, Aloysius enraptured with the way her fingers enter the younger woman, flushed and whining. James’ hips twitch with even the slightest movement, her nipples already tight and she’s already so, so wet. Aloysius is watching her the whole time, reliant on James’ pleasure as if it’s her own.

 

“Yes,” she murmurs. Her hair is falling in her eyes, face barely visible in the dim candlelight. “Yes, yes, yes. Very good.” Aloysius flicks her thumb, causing James to cry out and dig her nails into the older woman’s back. “Wonderful.”

 

James can only squirm and moan, incapable of saying anything other than a broken “oh” and “yes, do that” and “more, more, more.”

 

When she comes she gasps, and Aloysius hushes her when she’s whimpering afterwards. James has never felt anything more amazing than that, not food, not spring, not even prayer. She feels guilty and wants to cry, but Aloysius takes her in her arms before that happens.

 

The older woman does not offer any words of comfort, nor say anything at all. They just lie together in silence. Outside the tiny window of her quarters, James can see the night sky. She finds that she cannot see any stars in it but doesn’t care, because Aloysius is beside her, who is impossibly warm and bright.