Sister Catherine felt her smile touch the corner of her eyes. That simple connection between heart and mind marked her regaining control of her physical body. A whispered prayer of thanks sent her right hand towards her waist and the silver crucifix. Her fingers found fine fabric, a band of leather and nothing more. Frowning, she stood up and stared at the reflection in the full-length mirror that rested against the wall opposite the sofa. Thought faltered, a momentary amnesia that found expression in the tone of her voice, which gave the character to the sound to the thought, ‘Dear God, that’s me?!’
The variety of design and cut of the clothing that her mirror-self wore, demanded her attention the way that an alarm bell in a darkened room does: little information, excessive demand for attention. Standing, she waited for the novelty overload to dissipate, content to look and touch her clothing. Obviously stylish, undeniably expensive, the woman in the mirror was dressed as any other well-to-do woman of her age, provided, of course, that woman was not a nun.
However, Sister Catherine, the former Eleanor McManus, was a nun. Her wardrobe, drawing from the simplest of color palettes, consisted of a habit covering the body in black and framing her face, a wimple in pure white. Reading the label on an inside seam of her blouse, she found herself smiling at the thought, ‘As much as the Second Vatican Council has brought needed and welcomed changes to our lives at the convent, I’m certain that Neiman Marcus is not the new supplier of habits.’
Sister Catherine of St. Dominique’s, after turning right-to-left and then left-to-right, pulled her grey slacks enough to expose the tops of decidedly non-black non-oxford shoes. These were as much like her normal footwear as a Maserati was to a Mazda. They covered her feet, both cars had four wheels and that was the extent of their similarities.
‘Curiouser and curiouser’ the famous phrase sparked surprise laughter. Even as the image of Lewis Carroll’s heroine faded, her need for reason and rationality to prevail asserted itself. She faced the mirror and said, ‘I certainly did not wander into a department store and traded in my habit for this clothing!’ She felt an oddly re-assuring flash of panic at the thought that she was suffering from a drug-induced amnesia. For the second time since waking, her hand moved to her waist, a lifetime of habit clearly immune to any drug-caused memory loss.
Sister Catherine surveyed the room. Rectangular in shape and by extending her arms to the sides, she estimated the dimensions to be ten feet in width by perhaps sixteen feet. Reminded by the slight pressure on the back of her legs, she looked down at the sofa on which she returned to consciousness, ‘Like the sleeping princess in every fairytale ever told. Of course it’s never too early to teach us the joys of passivity.’ Sister Catherine’s lips pressed together in an expression that a stranger might take for a smile but a friend would see as determination.
‘Enough with the injustices of life, Catherine. Learn what you can and do something!’ The admonition had the desired effect and she took stock of the interior of the space.
The sofa was a sectional; or rather it was two-thirds of one, the middle and one end. It was upholstered in a rough cloth with threads of blue and grey running through it in no particular pattern. The arm of the end unit was smooth and stained. Where her head rested for however long she’d been here, was simply a raised extension of the cushion. The back was tufted and rose to large billowy cushions, but drooped unevenly, like melted wax. She decided that whoever put her on it had not just returned from a furniture store.
At the end of the sofa was an octagonal-shaped table of dark wood and glass. Like the couch it was worn and tired looking.
On the glass top was a cell phone, a credit card and a manila folder. Her right hand in mute reaction to a new wave of un-reality, reached yet again towards a missing crucifix. Instead she felt the soft wool of the slacks, bordered along the top by an equally soft leather belt. Pinching a fold of the fabric, she marveled at the luxurious feel and immediately stopped. ”Luxurious feel’, really Sister? Ten minutes in a stranger’s clothing and you’re developing a taste for couture? Clearly you need to figure out what’s going on, find your real clothing if possible and get out of here.’ The angle of the grin that pulled at her lips drooped. ‘Wherever it is ‘here’ happens to be.’ The follow-up thought sparked a touch of alarm, blunting her growing confidence.
She stepped closer to the end table. Ignoring the phone and the credit card, Sister Catherine picked up the manila folder and let it fall open in her palm. The relief that grew from the moment she realized that she was not blind, paralyzed or otherwise incapacitated evaporated at the sight of the single sheet of paper in the folder.
A piece of letterhead, the type found in any motel chain with the ambition of serving a clientele in need of quality writing paper, and across the top: ‘Comfort Inn, Maumee, Ohio’.
Sister Catherine felt the stale breath of a near-forgotten past stir the hair behind her ear.
Catherine picked up the cell phone. ‘ Ah! a ‘burner phone’ just like in those police shows that Sister Cletus enjoys so much!’ The memory of the old nun patiently explaining to her how criminals used this type of pre-paid phone because they were impossible to trace, brought a feeling of anger mixed with sadness. The anger became determination and brushing aside cloying fingers of fear, picked up the phone. Not the cheap generic devices favored in the shows, it was the latest model Samsung. She pressed the button on the left edge and the screen came to life. Rather than the usual assortment of icons, there was a youtube screenshot (in black and white) of a concert stage. Superimposed was the white triangle invitation to view the video. The title along the bottom read, ‘The Beatles at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in Ohio in 1966’.
Her finger hovered over the touchscreen. Remembering that her location was the first problem to be solved, put the phone in her pants pocket and picked up the credit card. It was a pre-paid Platinum Visa card.
Like a hospital patient seeing her chart left on the foot of the bed by an absent-minded physician, the former Eleanor McManus picked up the letterhead again. There was something handwritten on it. In an odd color, (neither blue nor red), the penmanship looked, ‘Well, like good old-fashioned penmanship’ she thought. Twenty-five years of teaching parochial school children to write made her assessment of slope of the letters, roundness of curves and regularity of spacing automatic. The writing was of an odd style, and almost certainly the writer used a fountain pen, ‘Or perhaps a quill pen?’ Chiding herself for fanciful speculation, she read: 115 Thorpe Way, Mendocino California. Below the address, Per ardua ad astra
Underneath the sole source of light, a small rectangle of glass, etched in chicken wire, was a wooden chair. Quite simple a design, un-padded, sculpted seat and half-curved back the chair was a white hand bag (with what appeared to be a gold padlock), and draped across the back, a coat. Without thought, she transferred the phone and credit card to the purse.
The rest of the space making up her cell (for surely it could be called nothing else), was both empty and featureless. Looking towards the left, Sister Catherine’s eyebrow tugged at her mind, unlike the other three walls, this one appeared to be corrugated. Smiling, she stepped in front of the wall and thought, ‘Very well, Mr Carroll. When is a wall not a wall? What? No answer?’ Looking down she saw an orange canvas strap attached to a metal handle in the center bottom of the door. ‘When the wall is really a door.’
Pulling upwards, a cool breeze pressed against her, starting at her ankles and proceeding upwards, like a new and very enthusiastic tailor, determined to take the measure of her body. Letting go of the strap, she held one hand, a brief salute to the sun, it’s light made painful by her time in near darkness. As her eyes struggled to accommodate the light, she saw that she stood in an alleyway, formed by a row of identical orange plastic doors. Stepping forward, bending slightly, Sister Catherine took three steps forward and looked down the row to where it ended in an open gate.
‘In Maumee, Ohio,’ she reminded herself as she walked down the row of storage units. It occurred to her that, despite the fact that an amnesic awaking in one’s hometown is a cliché among plot devices, her first thought was not the somewhat trite, ‘I’m home.’ In fact, the absence of this response bolstered her confidence.
The narrow road, really more of a lane, if for no other reason than it lacked the most basic of painted lines on the asphalt. As she walked, she passed an unremarkable assortment of industrial and commercial buildings and a single residential home lining the un-named street. In the distance, Sister Catherine saw a sparkle of blue water. She walked towards it.
‘River Road’ was the green and white metal claim fixed to a telephone pole. Something within the nun tried to hide.
“Mother Superior, this is Sister Catherine.” After a walk of a mile or so, Sister Catherine found a bench overlooking the Susquehanna River. Taking the cell phone from the pocket, she discovered that the number for St Dominique’s was already in the phone book.
“Yes, Sister Catherine. We missed you at breakfast… the last two days. And dinner as well. Are you alright?” Sister Catherine found herself tensing at the other woman’s tone of voice. It took only a brief time for the nuns of St. Dominique’s to learn that when the Mother Superior sounded peaceful, there was reason to be concerned.
“I’d love to say it’s a long story. However you’ve just provided me with useful information, the length of time that I’ve…been away or whatever the best descriptive word is. ‘Kidnapped’ sounds right, except for the fact I’m sitting on a bench in my hometown in Ohio and don’t have anyone chasing me. As a matter of fact, you’re the first person I’ve talked to since… my optometrist appointment in Pocomoke. I was sitting on the bench outside Dr. Restivo’s offices, waiting for the bus. Now I’m sitting on a bench in Ohio and I have a feeling that I’m still waiting for something.
“Remind me to have you write ‘My convent has a vehicle, I do not need to wait for the bus in Pocomoke’ fifty times on your class’s blackboard. When you get home.” The voice of the Mother Superior struggled to convey nonchalance despite her natural instinct to take command of a situation.
“I do know that, it was just that Sister Margaret was headed to Philadelphia to be with her brother. My spending some time on public transportation was a small inconvenience in comparison to how she must have felt as she drove off.” Sister Catherine idly ran her fingers along the hem of her coat. It was of such comfort and quality that she lacked the fashion vocabulary to describe. She imagined movie stars and women from old money would surely have such a garment in their wardrobe.
“About that transportation…” Catherine spoke slowly, the novelty of the plan taking shape in her mind refused to fit any familiar category. Confronted with the undeniable fact of being back in the place of her childhood caused long-buried memories to stir and begin to rise.
“Let me tell you what happened after I woke up a short time ago. And then I will ask you a question that I pray you will be able to answer.” Without waiting for an acknowledgement, Sister Catherine described her experiences since waking in the dark. She concluded by telling the other woman that she sat on a bus stop bench that afforded a view of a river. She hesitated and then described the green lawns and beige fields across the road, the only evidence of the institution in which she spent her childhood.
“Did you know that the last time I was here, I was given the name ‘Eleanor McManus’ by a very nice woman who worked the night shift at the Miami Children Facility?” Her thoughts, now somewhere halfway across the two lane state road on the way towards a building that existed in memory only, were pulled back by the sound of Sister Bernadine’s voice, ‘Yes, Catherine, you told me that when I first arrived at the convent. I remember quite distinctly…”
In what would not be considered an interruption, by virtue of her being only half in the present, Eleanor McManus continued, “My mother’s name was Cindy Marie Duquette and she named me Star Grace. I don’t think that more than four people knew my real name. She didn’t leave anything behind with me on the doorstep other than a note, ‘Please take care of my baby. I don’t know what else to do.’ And the institution did what institutions are created to do, keep order in the world as best they can. And order, especially among children, begins with having a name.”
“I did not know that, Catherine,” The voice on the cell phone was as strong as it always was, with a slight hesitation. It was a pause of uncertainty, which in some women (and men) can be as debilitating as a blow to the head. “We will work this out. The first thing is to get you home.” Sister Bernadine’s tone became more confident, a plan of action was the perfect fix for uncertainty. It conveyed a self-assurance that even 4G service could not carry.
Sister Catherine continued, in a musing tone almost as if talking to herself, “I was going to ask you what I should do about the address on the hotel stationary. Then I realized this is something between me and God. Yes, I understand that whoever put me here, in this clothing, provided me a credit card and phone and information is a dangerous person or persons. God’s plans for us don’t always come with a syllabus. Free Will must be accepted first before it can manifest as a gift from our Creator. I must decide my course of action. You agree with me, don’t you?”
“Well, I’m glad that you left me a question!” Concern was barely overridden by the natural command in Sister Bernadine Ellison’s voice. “We, you and I, are here where we are through the grace of God. Our lives are not merely a series of choices. Our lives are defined by the challenges that we, all men and women, confront each day. It’s nothing unique to being a nun or a member of a religious order. If we have faith and work hard, the relationship we have with God grows.
We know who is behind your disappearance. We also know, thanks to our sister Cletus, the kind of man Cyrus St Loreto is and what he is capable of and for that I am fearful. However, sometimes God uses the devil to advance his plan. That the devil is one of Gods creations, just as we are, is important to remember. It is not the forces in our lives that make us who we are, it is how we relate to and deal with the forces in our lives that make us who we are.
We will be here at the convent. Follow the trail that God seems to have made obvious at this moment in your life. Even if the agency for the beginning of your journey is of such questionable virtue, it will lead you where God wills.”