"Sister Gerda." Sister Odile spoke soothingly as both greeting and introduction. "This is our newest charge, Katharina."
"Supper's over and cleaned up." Her lips moved like waves, producing a spittle that dripped unchecked down her chin. "Thought you made it clear to have her here by three o'clock."
"So are we to stay out here until morning?" Sister Odile brought me close to her side. "Or will you kindly allow us to come in?"
Sister Gerda muttered as she scuttled backward, opening the door wide enough for a full view of the entry, where another door—equally impressive—dominated the facing wall. The long, narrow room was lined with two wooden benches. Above each hung a tapestry, but the light was too dim to make out the images.
"Go and fetch her a cup of water," Sister Odile said, leading me to sit on one of the benches. "And some bread, too. I'm sure you're hungry, aren't you?"
I nodded, then said, "Yes, ma'am," in case it was too dark for a silent response. An invisible prod from Papa prompted me to add, "Thank you, ma'am."
"Kitchen's closed up," Sister Gerda said with a sniff. "Cleaned up, too. It's nearly seven."
"This wouldn't be the first time somebody crept into the kitchen for a slice of bread after dark. Would our Lord not bid us to share what we have? Does our obedience to him snuff out with the sun? You're a quick, silent little one, Sister Gerda. No doubt you can be there and back before the hour tolls. And should anyone comment, tell them you are there on my errand. Schnell! Before the poor girl collapses from hunger."
I listened, fascinated by the rise and fall of Sister Odile's tone. Demanding at first, then affectionate, authoritative, and almost playful at the end. Almost as if four different women spoke from within the habit, each spinning to show her face from behind the veil. This, I knew, was a woman to be respected, maybe even feared. While her size brought on a certain intimidation, a level of comfort came with it too. Stooping, she took the candle stub from Sister Gerda, touched it to a sconce on the wall, and handed it back with a
sweetly whispered reminder to hurry. Then she went to one of the benches and settled her weight upon it, bringing out a creaking protest from the wood.
"Komm her." She held out her hands, gold band winking in the candlelight. It was impossible to distinguish sleeves from shadow, but the face floating in the midst of the darkness was wide and smiling.
Without another thought, I took the few steps to cross the room and climbed up into the softness of Sister Odile. Arms wrapped around me, and I was absorbed in the deepest embrace I could remember since before Mama fell ill. I pressed my face into the warm, worn wool and felt the rumbling of the sister's breath. Humming, now, a tune I did not recognize, but somehow knew to be ancient. Sacred. I closed my eyes, knowing it would be safe to cry now. The tears could flow into the wool, and as long as I did not sniffle, I could pour my fear and sadness into this woman. Instead, with each breath, I felt the block of fatigue from the journey begin to crumble, turning to little pebbles like those on the walkway, and finally to dust. I felt
heavy, too heavy to cry. Too heavy to lift my head and ask where I might go to sleep. Too heavy to close my lips when I felt its pull.
The last thing I remembered was the coarseness of the cross on Sister Odile's breast pressed into my cheek, each stitch wrapped around the lullaby.
Voices whispered at the edge of sleep.
"Should we wake her?"
"We have to, or Sister Gerda won't let her have any breakfast."
My stomach gurgled at the mention of it. I hadn't eaten since breakfast the previous day, and I'd fallen fast asleep, forgetting about the half of a sausage in my pocket, let alone the meal the monstrous sister was sent to fetch for me.
"Poke her shoulder, Girt."
"'You' poke her shoulder. You're the brave one."
"How brave do you have to be to poke a little girl's shoulder? It's the perfect opportunity for you to grow your courage."
"What if she bites?"
"She won't bite."
"But what if—"
At that moment I wished I could bite, imagining a snap of my teeth around their pointing fingers. They'd howl in pain and I'd jump up and run away. Back home, even, if I could remember the path. Instead, I clamped my eyelids down tighter and could feel them vibrating with the pressure.