Without having to open her eyes, Aloysius knew that she was alone. The small twin bed was colder than usual, and with a swipe of her hand against the simple cotton sheet, she knew that the left side of the bed had not been slept in for hours.
With weary eyes, the older woman surveyed the indentation on the pillow beside her own.
It was the second time in a week that she’d woken up alone like this. She could dismiss a single occurrence, knowing the young woman to be a light sleeper, but she could not overlook a second. Sleepless nights signified something more, something insidious lurking in the depths of the mind.
Her heart beat steadily as she rose from the bed, avoiding the floorboard that creaked beneath her weight as she reached for her shawl. She was too old for anxiety. To be sure, she was also too old to be searching for a lover in the middle of the night.
The house was quiet and dark, the only noise coming from the snores in Sister Raymond’s room and the howl of the wind beyond the walls of the building. Aloysius was steadfast in her pursuit, gripping her shawl against the chill as she made her way to the vacant first floor.
Sister James was where Aloysius had expected her to be: in the small parlor off of the kitchen. The eerie golden light from the solitary lamp in the room shone across the contoured shape of the crucifixion statuette above the mantle, upon which the young nun’s gaze was focused.
Aloysius watched her for several long minutes, knowing that James was so lost in thought that she had scarcely noticed her presence. “You ought to be asleep,” Aloysius said, sitting beside the young woman.
James gasped, color high in her pale cheeks as she turned to look at her superior. “Oh! I’m sorry—did I wake you?”
“I woke on my own,” Aloysius replied, turning her gaze to the statue. “I noticed you were gone.”
James tilted her head and stared at her hands, which firmly clutched her rosary beads. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“I’m not worried—merely curious about what would possess you to wander around when the rest of the world is asleep.” There was a small part of Aloysius that knew she was prying; the woman in her, the one who existed before the nun, had never been able to ignore her nagging curiosities. This, however, was beyond her own interest in knowing what had stirred the young woman’s insomnia. As her superior, it was her responsibility to find out.
“I couldn’t sleep.” James hesitated, her thumb worrying a single blue bead. “I’ve been…I think sometimes that what we’re doing is wrong. I wonder if perhaps He is watching us…if He is judging us…” Her meek voice tapered off.
Aloysius mulled over James’s concerns. She could sense the heaviness of her companion’s heart, the weight that bore down upon her. She had known this was coming. It was only a matter of time.
“Do you think He is?” James persisted, turning her porcelain face to observe her older lover closely.
Careful now, Aloysius thought solemnly. She knew the power that resided upon her tongue, how fragile and impressionable and naïve Sister James could be. She licked her lips and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders.
“He is always watching,” she began carefully, observing James’s rapt expression out of the corner of her eye. “I cannot decide for you if you can reconcile yourself to the choices we have made. I, however, believe that what we’re doing is not so terrible. How can love between two consenting adults be wrong?”
James nodded, her lips pursed in contemplation. “But—“
Aloysius abruptly stood. “The answer is yours to find, Sister James.” She started for the entryway to the hall and paused, turning back to the young woman. “Don’t be all night about it. You have class in the morning.”
Sister Aloysius made the lonely trek back to her room, never once turning back to the dim light filtering in from the parlor. She considered briefly that James might not return to her and immediately resolved to let the worry go. It would have been easy to influence her, to sway her misgivings in favor of their continued relationship, but she would have always questioned if James loved her because she’d been told to do so.
She climbed back into her bed. No—she could not have done that in good faith. She could not deny the possibility that perhaps God had condemned her for breaking her vows, but she could bear that burden alone. Sister James, however, might not have had the strength to do the same.
Aloysius heard the telltale creak of the second stair. Though she did not often give in to worry, she held her breath until James made her decision. There was no hesitation in the hall; her own door was quietly pushed open and then locked before James tiptoed into the bed. She spooned herself around the older woman’s frame and nuzzled her cold nose into the back of her neck.
“I realized that I always knew the answer,” James whispered, clutching her arm tightly around Aloysius’s waist.
The older nun released her breath and relaxed into James’s embrace, knowing that they would both sleep easily from then on.