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By Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2017 Alana Church
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
Sister Abigail Woodward sat nervously in St. Mary of the Angels Cathedral in Chicago.
Six years of waiting. Finally, I have my chance.
Abigail had never known a time when she had not wanted to be a nun. From the time she was a little girl, the thought of giving her life to the church had been all she desired. Throughout her high school years, while her classmates had been busy with boys or shopping or sports, she had been preparing herself for a life of service.
Her parents, conservative Catholics with a history of family members who were priests or nuns or missionaries, had been happy for her. Not enough people, they felt, took their duties to the church seriously. Too many men and women ignored that small, still voice inside them that called them to a lifetime of sacrifice. So when Abigail Margaret Woodward announced, at the tender age of seven, that she wanted to be a nun, they did everything in her power to encourage her.
After graduating high school, she attended Loyola University in Chicago, combining her studies with her novitiate. The gentle rhythms of the school soothed her, as did the company of several young women like herself who were undergoing religious instruction, while at the same time pursuing their college degrees. She would rather have skipped college entirely and entered the sisterhood as quickly as time allowed, but her mother had been firm on that point.
“No one is questioning your calling, Abigail,” Nora Anne Woodward had said. “But your father and I saw too many of our classmates enter religious orders in a fire of passion, only to have it burn out in a few years. We don’t want you to be a bitter old lady, trapped because you don’t know how to do anything else. If you find you’ve made a mistake, you’ll have something to fall back on.”
And, truly, her mother had been right. In college, surrounded by teachers who nurtured her abilities, she had found her true calling. Not just for the church, but for scholarship and research. After never showing any great aptitude for it before, she had thrown herself into the study of ancient languages, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek, and even gaining a smattering of Aramaic, all the better to research ancient scripture and to try to reconcile some of the frustratingly opaque texts that were the foundations of her religion.
She smiled quietly to herself. Most people, if they thought about it at all, simply assumed that the books of the bible had been written by Jesus and the apostles. But that was far from the truth. The bible was a hodgepodge, much of it taken from ancient Hebrew texts. The New Testament itself was a collection of gospels, most of them written decades or more after the death of Christ, and letters from the apostles to early Christian communities, many by St. Paul. To add to the confusion, the bible itself had not been translated into English for centuries. Her brothers had started to cover their ears when she began to expound on how the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could be proven to be written by different people, at different times, with different educational backgrounds, based on linguistic evidence alone.
Which was why, she thought with a small sigh, she was kicking her heels in a musty office when she should be outside in the good Lord’s sunshine. It was a gorgeous September day in Chicago, and anyone with a lick of sense was enjoying one of the last truly summer-like days they could expect to get before winter clamped down on the area with jaws of steel. But she was waiting on an interview which would determine whether she might get her heart’s desire.
Rome. She sighed wistfully at the thought. Every year, the diocese of Chicago sent several of its most promising priests and nuns to the Vatican. Her fingers itched at the thought of delving into its library, one of the most famous in the entire world. God above, the things she could learn there…
“Ah! Sister Abigail!” A bespectacled face peered around a corner. “I’ve kept you waiting.”
“It’s no trouble,” she said. She hesitated. “Are you Bishop Flanagan?”
“In the flesh,” the older man chuckled. Dressed in worn slacks and a shapeless sweater, he resembled someone’s favorite old uncle, rather than a member of the ecclesiastical elite. He gestured to her. “Come into my office.”
She entered the room. The shelves were lined with books, the scent of leather and paper hanging in the air like an old friend. The bishop pointed to a chair, and she took a seat, perching on the edge apprehensively. He sat behind a desk littered with files. A somewhat battered laptop sat in front of him, and books and manila folders were strewn on every flat surface in unsteady piles.
“Well, now.” He peered over the tops of his spectacles at her. “You’re here about the position in Rome.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
He winced, holding up a hand. “Please. There’s no need to be formal. When I was a seminarian, I was called ‘hey, you.” I don’t think I’ve risen that high since. Call me Peter. Sir or bishop, if you must.”
He raised her brows at her, but let the matter go. “A year in Rome,” he mused, as if to himself, opening up a folder on his desk and peering at the contents through his glasses. “Your application is very impressive. And the people at Loyola speak very highly of you. Professor Carmichael says you are one of the best young minds he has seen in his classroom in years. ‘A born philologist,’ he says, ‘able to cut to the heart of a translation with a mind like a scalpel.’”
She floundered, unsure of how to respond to such effusive praise. “Thank you. I enjoyed his classes very much.”
“Philology. It has fallen out of fashion in the last few decades. Comparative linguistics combined with the study of languages and how they influence cultures.” He nodded approvingly. “I am certain you would do us proud, Sister Abigail. But still. A year in Rome? And you barely out of your novitiate?” He shook his head, frowning. “I will be honest with you. We do not like to send our young people abroad. The people who surround His Holiness are not always…as honorable as we might wish. As I am sure you know, power attracts the unscrupulous. And power corrupts. I’ve seen too many bright young minds come back with strange ideas about money and position and knowing the right people. Or even about which of their former friends they should un-know. It can take years to disabuse them of those notions. We are here to serve, not to be served.
“So, no.” he smiled gently. “Not Rome. I think I have a better use for you.”
She tried to hold up her head, despite the vast disappointment that filled her heart. “Yes?”
“I have received a request. A request for you personally. It seems that word has reached beyond the campus at Loyola. Some people in high positions are aware that a hungry young mind has completed her novitiate and has taken full vows. A mind that belongs to one of the best young linguists in her generation.
“The Abbess at the Convent of Saint Guinevere has asked for you. It seems she has come into possession of a document which she believes is of historical significance. A document she assures me is unique, but does not see fit to pass along to her bishop, let alone the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Chicago” he grumbled. “To cut the matter short, she says it is an artifact which will shed light on the thinking of the ancient church in the first centuries of its existence. She is sure of its authenticity, but does not have anyone in the convent who has the necessary skill to serve as a translator.”
“Couldn’t she send it here? I am sure that you have capable people who could do the work for her.”
“Ah.” He smiled ruefully. “Well, this woman is of a very…determined…character, let us say. Stubborn, even. She tells me she will not send it to Chicago, as she wants a completely unbiased eye in charge of the translation. Your eye.”
Abigail blinked. What an opportunity! To be in charge of translating something unknown? Something that could shed light on the early days of the church, and possibly unseat old, established doctrine? Anyone would jump at the chance!
“Of course,” she said eagerly. “Where is the convent? When should I arrive?”
“Ah.” The old eyes twinkled behind his glasses. “It’s in Peru.”
“Peru? South America?” She gasped. A romantic image sprang unbidden to her eyes. Dusty, sun-drenched plazas, long siestas, mountains that reached toward the skies, and fog-filled canyons that echoed with the sounds of thundering waterfalls.
“Um, no.” The little man gave an embarrassed little cough. “Not South America.”
Peru, Illinois, Abigail thought sourly as she drove down Interstate 80. She resisted the urge to burst into bitter laughter. I ask to go to Europe, and instead I end up less than a hundred miles from where I grew up.
She had been half-tempted to throw Bishop Flanagan’s offer back in his face. Let him find another donkey to do the translation work. If he didn’t think she was good enough to go to Rome, she obviously wasn’t good enough to work for the abbess at St. Guinevere, whoever she was.
She sighed, banishing the unworthy thought. Flanagan’s argument had merit, however much she hated to admit it. She had seen what he had described in several of her classmates; people who thought that because they had been born to wealth, they were somehow better than other people. One of her friends had described it as the result of being a member of the ‘lucky sperm club.’ They couldn’t comprehend that their good fortune was simply good fortune, rather than God’s will.
She turned off the interstate, slowly making her way through the small town, following the instructions from the app on her cell phone. She idly wondered how people a hundred years ago found their way around, without helpful things like GPS and turn-by-turn instructions to make their lives easier.
At last, she found the right street, a seldom-used two-lane road on the southern outskirts of town. As the building hove into view, her eyes widened. She had been expecting a fairly large building. No cloister of nuns would be able to live in a simple house. Not with a dozen or more sisters living there. But this…
This is ridiculous.
She pulled into the freshly-tarred driveway, the asphalt a black so deep it seemed to soak up the rays of the sun. She got out of the car, staring, feeling as if she had been transported to another place. No. Another continent. And another time.
It was almost a castle, if such a thing could be imagined in the bucolic environs of north-central Illinois. Just looking on it brought to mind men in frock coats and cravats, and women in ballgowns, wrapped in pastel colors. Warm golden sandstone met her astonished eyes, climbing towards the skies in a frontage that filled a full four stories. Green lawns, manicured so evenly she thought a weed would receive a mandatory death sentence, covered the space between the road and the steps that led up to the portico. Windows like welcoming eyes gleamed in the midday sunlight, and the wings of the building swept back on either side, embracing what had to be a private garden in the rear of the building.
Her mind reeled. The sheer cost of maintaining a building so vast made her want to scream in