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The Convent


November 1, 2010

Over the years, Sister Carlota had given shelter to many dogs in the convent. Almost every time she went to the city, which was three or four times a year, she came back with a starving mongrel that she had found wandering the streets. Moved by her kindness, the Mother Superior let her keep them as long as they did not get in the way of the old nun’s duties. Sister Carlota washed every new arrival with soapy water, healed their wounds with mercurochrome and their mange with sulphurated lime, and ended the ritual by putting a small wooden cross round their neck, engraved with a name she had chosen from the Bible. Treated with such care, the dogs gave her their absolute loyalty. They never barked in her presence; they ran to her when they heard their names and followed her everywhere apart from the chapel, where she had taught them to wait at the door while she prayed with the sisters. They slept anywhere in the convent, under the arches of the cloister, on the steps of the chapel, in the abandoned buildings, depending on the weather. Sister Carlota fed them with whatever she could spare from the meager provisions of the convent and the bones and offal she was given for free in the city, but it was hardly enough to satisfy their appetites, and every morning she took to letting them out to forage like wild animals in the woods round the convent.

At night the nuns were often awoken by the sound of a dog howling, which was then joined by the howls of a second dog, then another, and so on, until the whole convent echoed with their cries.

On one of her rare holidays some years earlier, she had visited the famous Cimetière des Chiens near Paris, where a monument to a Saint Bernard dog gave her the idea to train her dogs to rescue people lost in the sierra. When she returned to the convent, she spoke to the Mother Superior. Sister María Inés doubted that Sister Carlota’s strays could match the abilities of the noble Swiss breed but did not want to disappoint the nun and gave her consent. As she suspected, it was a futile endeavor. The dogs were too old to learn and nothing could make them relinquish the freedom to which they had been accustomed. Sister Carlota tried to teach them discipline, but even though they wanted to please her, they were unable to understand her orders and simply looked at her with eyes full of curiosity. She threatened to beat them, but they could sense that she would not do it. She hid things and showed them how to find them, but they had no natural drive for searching unless it was food they were after. And so, with great disappointment, she acknowledged her failure and let them do whatever God intended them to do.

At night the nuns were often awoken by the sound of a dog howling, which was then joined by the howls of a second dog, then another, and so on, until the whole convent echoed with their cries. Then Sister Carlota had to get out of bed and search in the dark until she had found every dog and calmed them all down. It was not her only problem. She also had to put up with their untamed bowels, which they emptied with abandon. She rushed to clean after them, puzzling over how they were capable of turning out such an unimaginable amount of excrement when they seemed to eat so little. Worse still was their fondness for vice, which scandalized the old nun and made her question Noah’s wisdom in having taken them on the Ark. And yet, whatever their filthy and dissolute habits, they had never until now been aggressive towards anyone.

After the attack, Sister María Inés returned to her room and sat rocking the child to calm him. Sister Beatriz came with the bowl of milk and did not want to leave. The Mother Superior sent her away, reassuring her: “Do not worry. The child has not been harmed. He is only scared. It was not as frightening as it seemed.” But as she fed him, put him in the cradle, and rocked him to sleep, she could not stop shaking with fear. Finally, she sat on the edge of her bed and began to calm down. On the floor, a few drops of blood marked her course from the door when she had first come in. She found her belt and put it on, noticing that her rosary was missing. She had no idea where she could have lost it. For a moment, she wondered whether the incident meant that she had lost God’s support but dismissed her fears. She thought that God ought to be pleased that she had saved an innocent life.

She lifted the hem of her habit and inspected her wound with a nurse’s detachment. Her fingers traced the blood that was beginning to congeal. The marks left by the dog’s teeth were deep but the wound did not need stitching. She was not bothered by the likelihood of a scar. She cleaned the wound with water, then with surgical spirit, and finally wrapped it with a clean cloth. She did everything with competence and the composure of one who has seen far greater horrors in her life. Then she lay in bed and rested until she heard the bell. She was too tired to leave her room and for the first time in all her years in the convent, she did not go to the chapel for prayer but knelt and said the angelus instead. In the evening, when she brought her some soup, Sister Beatriz found her kneeling by her bed again. The Mother Superior finished her prayer and stood up. She said: “Thank you, but I am not hungry.”

Sister Beatriz put the dish on the desk. “You have to eat, Mother. Who knows what would’ve happened to the child today if you hadn’t been so strong.”

The nun stood beside the cradle and observed the sleeping child. The Mother Superior sat to eat. “I am now convinced more than ever that he would be lost without me,” she said.

“You’ll always be there for him,” Sister Beatriz said.

Then she put her hand in her pocket and took out a dusty rosary. She brushed it against her habit and gave it to the other woman. The Mother Superior took it with both hands, touched the cross to her lips with great relief, and looped the worn string of beads over her belt. She had been given it when she was a postulant and expected that she would be buried with it wound round her fingers. Over the years she had attended several burials, sometimes leading the funeral service from the altar, feeling no fear but standing in awe of the start of the eternal life. The open coffin on the bier, the dead nun dressed in a starched habit, recumbent with her hands clasped in prayer on her chest, the ashen face that a little earlier stirred with the vestiges of life—they always seemed to her to exude the calm of a great burden having been lifted. Sitting now at her desk, she felt the smell of burning candles and the words of the funeral Mass came into her mind: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis—Eternal rest give to them, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them . . .

“How is your ankle, Reverend Mother?” the nun asked.

“You can help me change the bandage.”

She left her soup unfinished and lay down on the bed, pointing at the surgical spirit, the cotton wool, and some clean cloths on the table. The young nun began to unwrap the cloth tied round Sister María Inés’s ankle. The Mother Superior said: “Only clean the wound with alcohol. If it turns out that I need treatment, it will have to be a vaccine. But I do not think the dog carries rabies.”

The nun soaked a piece of cotton wool in surgical spirit and began to clean the wound. “Such a thing has never happened before,” she said. She cleaned the wound a second time and began to wrap a clean cloth round the swollen ankle. “Sister Carlota is very sorry, She wants to come and see you.”

“I want to see no one.”

Sister Beatriz finished attending to the wound and gathered the used cotton wool and the dirty bandage to throw away. The Mother Superior covered her ankles again with her habit and glanced at the sleeping child from where she lay. She said: “I want you to stay with the child tomorrow, Beatriz. You will have to miss the early morning prayer.”

The nun bowed and went out with one last glance at the child. For a long time afterwards, Sister María Inés was unable to sleep. The incident with the dog had strengthened her resolve to protect the child. When she finally fell asleep, still repeating her solemn vow to show no mercy towards any human or animal who wanted to harm him, she dreamed that it was the time of prayer and she was on her way to the chapel. But when she climbed the steps and dipped her fingers in the marble stoup next to the door, she found it empty. She quickly went to the well to fill the bucket, but the well was dry. When she returned to the chapel, the Virgin was standing at the door. Sister María Inés crossed herself and tried to walk past but the Virgin stopped her. She said: “You have to cleanse yourself of your sins first, Isabel.” The nun did not know what to do. Then the Virgin closed the door and the prayer began inside the chapel. Sister María Inés went away

She woke with the sound of the bell at dawn, still shaken by her dream, and the first thing she did was to check that the child was well. Then she washed her face and sat at her desk, which was what she always did when she had to make a difficult decision. For a while, she wavered but then she called to mind the incident with the dog in all its horror and had no doubt about what she ought to do. Someone knocked on her door. She expected it to be Sister Beatriz but it was Sister Carlota. The Mother Superior looked at her coolly.

“I wanted to see you, Reverend Mother,” the elderly nun said. “I’m very sorry about what happened. I will have the dogs neutered. It will calm them down.”

“That will not be necessary.”

There was a knock on the door and Sister Beatriz entered with the bowl of milk for the child and a walking stick for the Mother Superior.

“It was a mistake to give sanctuary to those animals,” Sister María Inés said. “But I do not blame you, Carlota. You did it out of kindness.”

The idea had come to Sister María Inés during the night, and once she had decided, no one could dissuade her from going through with it

As soon as the old nun was gone, the Mother Superior sat on the edge of the bed and replaced the bandage herself: the wound was healing well. When she finished, she unlocked the cupboard where she kept the rat poison. Sister Beatriz watched her. “Feed the child,” the Mother Superior said and took the poison and the walking stick. “I will not be long.” The young nun followed the Mother Superior with her eyes until she left the room.

The idea had come to Sister María Inés during the night, and once she had decided, no one could dissuade her from going through with it. Leaning on the walking stick, she went downstairs. There was no one around: the sisters were in the chapel. She went across the cloister with the bag of poison under her arm, her walking stick tapping against the flagstones. The offal for the dogs was kept in the buttery. She took several pieces and went round the convent calling them. They came briskly from several directions, wagging their tails. Sister María Inés was ready to use the walking stick to protect herself but the dogs were as friendly as they had always been. She was uncertain which one had attacked her but it did not matter. After counting them to make certain they were all there, she dipped the meat in the arsenic, taking care not to touch the powder with her fingers. The dogs smelled the meat and crowded round her. She said: “Be patient. There is enough for all of you.” She threw them the pieces and they ate hungrily. When she had thrown all the meat, she sat on a bench in the cloister and watched the dogs eat. She had no doubt that what she had done was necessary to keep the child safe.

Later, when the prayer ended and the nuns came out, they could tell right away that the dogs were in the courtyard. But, it being dark inside the chapel, it took the women’s eyes some time to get used to the daylight and only then did they see that the dogs lying in the dust were not lazing in the sun, as they had at first assumed, but were in fact slowly dying in the creamy pools of their own vomit.

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KarnezisPanos.jpgPanos Karnezis was born in Greece in 1967 and came to England in 1992. He studied engineering at Oxford and worked in industry before starting to write in English. His first novel, The Maze, was shortlisted for the 2004 Whitbread First Novel Award. The Convent will be published in the U.S. this month by W.W. Norton & Company. He lives in London.

Writer’s Recommendations:

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden (1939) A very atmospheric novel set in the Himalayas where a group of Anglican nuns attempt to establish a religious community. It was made into the film of the same name starring Deborah Kerr in 1947.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1940) His masterpiece about a revolutionary priest trying to get away from the authorities who have denounced Christianity in 1920s Mexico.

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1994) Set in a South American seaport during the colonial era, it is the story of a girl who contracts rabies after being bitten by a dog and, believed to be possessed, is locked up in a convent where a young priest is sent to oversee her exorcism.

Homepage photo via Flickr by Visa Kopu

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