This Nun was the real thing. Esther Stein lay weak upon her bed, her body once ripe, now emaciated, a half smile on her face, watching as Sister Mary Magdalene entered the door (the door that she, Esther, had asked to be opened), garbed from head to toe in black and white. Only her face and hands showed. Esther waited as Mary Magdalene walked to her bed.
The two comforters stirred and Esther spoke to them: "Leave, please." They had been there day after day, full of good intentions, anxious to please. But occasionally they reminded Esther of jellyfish. And what she needed now was someone with fiber, with backbone.
For finally it had been borne upon her that she was about to face eternity, and, even more terrifying, God Almighty. And now was not the time for gentleness. Now was time for repentance.
Esther nodded to a chair and Mary Magdalene sat beside her bed. She reached for the dying woman's hand, who in turn gave a weak squeeze to the Nun's hand. Then Esther began to talk. It was a great effort, but she had thought for weeks about the matter and now the story, bearing with it confession, flowed seamlessly from her.
"I am not Job," she began, "wracked with this suffering in spite of my innocence. (Although the two who just left would be offended to hear that.) But I can see the matter as clearly as a fist in my face." She paused and smiled, pressed the Nun's hand and continued.
"When I was thirteen my family traveled to Northern Ohio to see my cousin Ruth. And on that trip Ruth and I went canoeing on the Cuyahoga River. It was a remarkable experience. We were the first ones on the river that morning. Ruth was 18 so she sat in the back of the canoe, paddling and directing the trip. She was an expert: so much so that my task became much like breathing. Like a great lazy creature, our canoe cut slowly through the river. It was almost a part of the river.
"At one point early in the trip, a fawn came to the edge of the river and we slowly drifted to it. I held my hand to it and the fawn first licked and then began to suck at my fingers. For five minutes we were like that. Finally I took back my hand and as Ruth took the canoe to the center of the river I let my hand drift like a fallen leaf, lazy in the river. It was white like foam against the dark water and the morning sun broke, now and then, through the trees on the shore and gave luster to my hand. I'll never forget that: the rough, warm tongue of the fawn, and the smooth, chill skin of the water against my hand and the warm shafts of sun on the river and then on my hand. And the canoe, driven by muscles other than mine, taking me all the while down the river.
"I paddled, of course, after that, but my effort was desultory at best, a kind of indolent face saving. Ruth never complained. Instead she took us unerringly down the river, several times pointing out wildlife. We even saw a bald eagle that day.
"Sitting there in the front of the canoe it was as if the river in all its varied glory were carrying me on to our final destination. And while we traveled I, without any effort, controlled the canoe. For Ruth would take the canoe wherever I chose. We came at one time to a great expense of the river, the water dark brown and bordered by water lilies. We went to them and although we were not supposed to pick them I filled our lunch basket with them. We went through a narrow stretch, bordered by trees and lawns and made exhilarating by rapids. I let my hand drag in the water here also. The water was cool, but it was the pressure of the flowing water, the spray from the hand that pleased.
"Finally we reached our destination. My cousin waited until I had climbed from the canoe and then pushed me into the river. We floated and swam lazily for the longest time. When we were satisfied we climbed out, changed our clothes and went home."
Esther paused, her eyelids fluttered and she slept. Sister Mary Magdalene allowed this and prayed.
When Esther awoke she spoke immediately: "Ah, Sister, bear with me. My stamina is gone. But I must tell you of my soul. I must help you understand my wretchedness. Then you will know if there is healing for me."
Mary Magdalene nodded.
"I have no one to blame, Sister. My mother may have been a little distant, but she was not a bad woman. And she loved me. I was the youngest child and the only daughter. My father doted on me. If anything they spoiled me.
"But, Sister, I lay here and look at my arms, once strong and nimble, now like stiff branches, at the wrinkled apples that used to be breasts (breasts that turned more than one head) and I know that I must bear the responsibility for this wasting.
"For you see, Sister, for several years I imagined life to be like that canoe trip. Life, for me, became a great river to carry me where I wanted to go. Its sole purpose was to put flesh on my dreams. Nor could I conceive of flowers that were really forbidden. Instead I allowed myself to drift day by day and took what gave me pleasure. My life was a series of unconnected experiences and I was the basket to collect them. Day by day I sought to fill the basket with more flowers. I did not realize that it was possible to pick a bloom that would spoil all the rest and destroy the basket as well.
"For a while this notion was innocent enough. It pleased me to receive adulation, so I got straight A's. It pleased me to achieve rather than give praise so I played volleyball instead of becoming a cheerleader. It pleased me to have friends so I was outgoing, even kind.
"But when I was sixteen I discovered that I could wield power. And perhaps this became the theme of my life. I discovered I could steer the canoe. And with this discovery I found that I could gather pleasure more quickly and more precisely. And when my body bore with a vengeance fruits of womanhood, the innocent manipulation disappeared." She paused and sorrow touched her face.
"Poor Curtis Malone, who kept inviting me to his Church, was my first conquest. I overcame his sense of right and wrong on the third date. In the third month of our relationship I told him I was pregnant. He was dismayed. But when he told his parents of it and prepared to quit school and marry me and take a job I laughed and told him not to be silly, that pregnancies were no real problem.
" 'Esther,' he said, and I can still hear his voice crack with tension, 'I am responsible for the child. We must do the right thing.'
"But I put my forefinger to his lip, hushed him, kissed him and said, 'Curtis, it is not a question of responsibility, but a question of what I want.' And I walked away before he could protest again. And the next week I had an abortion.
"The idea that I could seduce a goody two shoes like Curtis Malone gave me great joy. Forcing him before his parents in great shame only added to the joy. And the notion that I could, with a signature and $500, end a pregnancy and continue my life as I wished made me feel as if my will were the only one that really mattered."
Esther paused. Her voice caught. "When Curtis Malone killed himself-- I was-- encouraged.
"God, my God, oh my God... and that was just the beginning. Having emptied the world of two lives for the sake of my own will, I ate and drank at the altar of power. And I was happy doing it." Tears covered her cheeks as she gazed at the Nun, and then she slept. Mary Magdalene sipped from a glass of water and prayed, still holding with her right hand the hand of Esther Stein.
Esther awoke when her husband brought soup and beverage for both women. His face, once ravaged by emotion, now was simply a mask, showing no feeling. He smiled as he introduced himself to the Nun, but the smile left his face immediately. Gently, but with no real warmth, he touched Esther and left.
"It is not his fault," Esther said. "There is no hate in him. It is just that there is no love. I sacrificed it at the idol's altar."
They ate their soup and drank their cocoa in silence. And Esther took up her story again.
"Having discovered that the power of my body could be used to bring me pleasure and having discovered that other kinds of power would allow me to pursue this pleasure without penalty I came to find pleasure not in the fruit of the use of power, but in power itself. Thus it was that I worshiped at Power's altar.
"In college I used an array of men. But I kept them at arm's distance. A condom was not the only thing that separated us. I took pre-law. I married Alan Stein at the end of my senior year, not because I loved him, but because I wanted him. He was an archeologist with the university. He taught and dug and I entered law school. He was gone for months on end and that suited me fine. My lifestyle did not change."
She paused and continued. "Nor did the efficiency of condoms change. Through a leaking condom the virus entered me. And, of course, I passed it eventually to my husband. In his innocence and anger, Alan's heart has become a rock. Not only to me but to all about him. And I fear for him-- not only for the wasting of his body, but for the hardness of his heart. Perhaps when I am gone you can find the hammer to break the rock."
Mary Magdalene murmured: " 'I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.' "
"What? No. Never mind." Esther gripped the hand of the Nun and said: "Let me finish, Sister, and then God grant you words to speak."
Mary Magdalene nodded and Esther continued: "If I had not become sick, if I were still practicing law, if I saw things as I once did, and if I had for a client someone afflicted as I am, I would sue the condom company. And I would denounce the powers in Washington for not hurrying research. But I see now that for me all of that is beside the point. For long before the wasting of my body was the wasting of my soul. For my husband, perhaps, the story is a different
"At one time I would embrace any cause that would set a person free to do as she wanted. Once I sued an abortion clinic because after the abortion a baby had lived. I argued that my client had paid not only to be free of the child, but to be free of any worry for the child (fetus-- I called it a fetus, of course). And this, I argued, meant the death of the fetus.
"Oh God," she sighed, "poor Curtis." And then she sobbed, "Our poor child." And then moaning she continued, "I am covered. Covered. I am covered with their blood. I have been for so long, and I have been blind to the stain."
She sobbed and then she slept. Mary Magdalene did not move, but she whispered: "A stain for which there is cleansing."
When Esther awoke, she sat up and spoke. "I dreamed, Sister, that I was again in a canoe. And I dreamed of water that filled the canoe and came from One who taught me anew how to steer the canoe. And when the water filled the canoe I no longer feared myself or the river. And I dreamed that you would tell me of this water."
And before the whole host of Heaven, Mary Magdalene began to speak. And as she spoke, Esther saw herself; and the sight was to her unbearable. She saw herself small and filthy, grabbing and thankless, hurting all who passed her. And she saw herself choose over and over to smear herself with filth. But around her she saw a light, and in the light she sensed love. But the darkness separating her from the light grew thicker as she smeared herself countless times with filth.
And the time came when the light was veiled. And a deep silence, almost palpable, lay all about. And Esther took in her hands more filth and the silence commanded her to stop. But she was fey and deaf to the command. And the filth this time filled her and poisoned her.
But the poison which bore with it death and great agony also tore the dark crust that had blinded her. And the veil was lifted, and the light shone and fell on her so that she began to see.
And when, to the words of light, Esther said, "Yes," the crust of filth shattered utterly and fell from her to the dust of the ground. And though her body still was ravaged, her soul was remade. And the hand of her that spoke was raised and words were spoken, and water sweet and pure fell upon her.
And then the speaker disappeared and the water bore to her the One who had been with her from the beginning. And on His hands and feet she saw the prints of nails and in his side a terrible wound. But from his eyes there fell tears of joy. And Esther knew that she was loved and for whatever time was left her, she would live in a power not her own, and chose a will not her own, and that in doing this she would know joy.
Esther lifted her face to the Nun. And they smiled and they wept and they laughed. And the Nun spoke to Esther: "We are all taken from the same bad clay. But in His hands something wonderful will be made."
Esther nodded and then she said to the Nun: "Please find Alan and bring him to me."
And all of heaven shook with celebration.
M. Frank © 1992
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