She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea.
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Sister James wasn’t having a great birthday. William London had caused a disruption in class by dropping his textbooks, and now he was undoubtedly receiving another terrifying lecture from Sister Aloysius. On one hand, James appreciated the extent to which Aloysius was willing to stick up for her— the older nun was notorious for her zero tolerance policy when it came to the children, but was much more exacting when Sister James was involved. On the other hand, James felt sorry for William. He really was a sweet boy, if not a bit reckless.
She didn’t mind not celebrating her birthday, James had taken her vows knowing what she was getting herself into. However, she did mind the fact that Aloysius was being prickly. Oh, the older woman always was, but it was often in an endearing sort of way. There was nothing even remotely adorable about her behaviour today, snapping at students left and right. Sister James prided herself on being a relatively cheerful person, but she was becoming a bit exasperated with Aloysius. Despite the events of last year involving Father Flynn, James had maintained her warm disposition. Aloysius had remarked to her a few months ago that she was surprised that James was still capable of seeing good in people. James didn’t see how it could be difficult— for her, it had been so much harder to swallow the truth that some people were immoral and ill-intentioned. Out of all the realisations that messy month, the most painful was that Aloysius had doubts. It could have meant so many things, her faith in God, her certainty of Father Flynn’s crimes, the virtue of her character.
James never told Aloysius how much it scared her, that such a strong woman she admired so ardently was unsure. They never discussed that day, when James had rested her chin on the older woman’s knee, and when Aloysius didn’t push her away. They’d touched each other before; fingers brushing, shoulders colliding in narrow corridors. It was a whole other world, to revel in the warmth of Aloysius, the nearness of her. Aloysius felt a million miles away most of the time, her mind ten steps ahead of everyone else. She was brilliant, yes, but so distant and occasionally absent. That moment though, James had felt like they were finally on the same page— two women in the snow, two women with twin tears streaming down their faces. The bond they had always shared deepened, forging itself into something that could tether them together.
Sister James shut her book and glanced out at the large windows of the classroom. The afternoon sunlight warmed her face and she smiled. It was a beautiful day, one that welcomed children to play together under the sky. Perhaps her birthday wouldn’t be quite so unpleasant after all.
There was a sharp knock at the door, and even without checking James knew it was Aloysius.
The door swung open and Sister Aloysius strode in, her habit flowing behind her furiously. The grim expression set into her face spoke of bad news. James winced.
“I must speak with you about something. An urgent matter.” Sister Aloysius tilted her head. James decided that she looked more contemplative than displeased, and took this as a sign that nothing dire had happened. She tucked her book into her desk, prepared to give Aloysius her full attention.
“I would like you to join me in my office for this,” Aloysius added.
Oh. Sister James rose from her seat, the chair’s legs dragging across the floor. When the older woman turned and left without a word, James followed obediently.
Aloysius’ office was walled with dark mahogany and green, unwelcoming and unhappy. But not today-- the drapes weren’t drawn and golden light made the colours appear rich instead of frumpy, playfully dancing along the shining wood of Aloysius’ desk.
Aloysius handed James a book, bound in a simple leather cover. Curiosity tugged at James, and she was unable to restrain herself from flipping through it.
“This is The Old Man and the Sea!” James said excitedly, her cheeks aching from how widely she was smiling. It was one of her favourite stories, though last year she’d ruined her copy by leaving it in the courtyard during a rainstorm.
Aloysius’ expression remained cool, but her mouth curved into an almost-amused smile. “Yes. Happy birthday.” She gently touched James’ wrist, something that the younger woman had learnt to recognise as an affectionate gesture.
Overcome with emotion, James threw her arms around Aloysius. The older nun made an ‘oof’ noise, but otherwise seemed content to have James crush her in a hug.
“Mhm.” Aloysius’ voice sounded a bit strangled, and James reluctantly released her, a grin still plastered onto her face. A faint blush was now beginning to spread across the older woman’s face, her cheeks rosy and expression dumbstruck. She fiddled with the sleeves of her habit, trying and failing to appear aloof. The sight made the small flicker of happiness in James’ chest expand into something even warmer, and compelled her to kiss Aloysius on her cheek.
The older woman gasped but said nothing, and James flushed. Maybe she shouldn’t have done that.
“Well, thank you for the b-book!” With that, Sister James raced out of Aloysius’ office, her face burning. Once in the privacy of her own quarters, she opened the book to the first page and recognised the handwriting of its inscription.
Take good care of this copy, I won’t be getting you a replacement. Thank you for being my friend.
As James read, each page taking her farther and farther away from Aloysius’ inscription, her mind still dwelled on it.