Stories Gustus Dei

Monica Byrne

The convent sat on a waterless plain.

Sister Theresa rested on a bench at the edge of the convent garden. She looked up at the clouds. She imagined them thickening, curdling, manifesting. Manna would drop slowly and drift to the ground like snowflakes. She and her sisters would gather them up in the folds of their skirts and place them into their mouths and then feed them to each other.

She saw Father Dykstra lurch into view. He was coming up the rise from his cottage, kicking up dust from the dry earth. In response, Sister Joan, the garden mistress, roused herself from the cabbage bed.

Having seen her, Father Dykstra halted. He waited, head down, his mouth pursing and unpursing. He was small and wiry, with a red leather face. His hands were clasped behind his back. One held the other at the wrist, and the free hand flapped like an injured bird wing.

Sister Joan stopped a stone’s throw away from him. She had a face like a benthic fish, with a boxy jaw and beady eyes. She looked beyond him. The nun and priest were like two crows, perched askance, biding time. They had a ritual.

“Wind’s from the west!”

“Yep, squash is late.”

Silence followed. Sister Theresa watched them from the corner of her eye. The two still gazed past each other, like tango partners removed.

“Hear about them Indians?” he said.

“Can’t say I did.”

“We gotta keep ’em out—”

“Do we.”

“—keep our eyes peeled.”

Father Dykstra was paranoid about the Indians. He was a grandson of westward-bound pioneers, a child of ambushes. Sister Theresa had once been in his cottage and seen maps all over his desk: Wyoming, North Dakota, Minnesota. Indian territories were marked up in red.

“Be an early winter!”

“Don’t I know it.”

Father Dykstra seemed satisfied by this last exchange. Sister Joan lingered a moment longer for his sake, looking hard out over the plains, as if spotting for gophers. Then she turned around. Sister Theresa looked away, trying to be unseen, to melt into the dust.

But Sister Joan had caught sight of her. In a few steps, her shadow lay across Sister Theresa’s lap.

“Don’t feel like workin’!”

It was a statement, with a tinge of sympathy Sister Theresa did not expect.

“No,” she said softly. She didn’t look up. “I feel a little tired.”

“Mmmm.” Sister Joan looked up at the sky, heavy as a blanket. “Been feelin’ tired a lot lately, haven’t you.”

Sister Theresa said nothing. Her hands lay limp in her lap.

“Why don’t you go see Mother, eh?”

Sister Theresa nodded. “Yes, Sister Joan.” She swung quickly off the bench and marched towards the convent, head down.

Sister Joan watched her go, fists balled on her hips. Then she turned back to her work.

Sister Theresa came to stand in the doorway of Mother Anne’s study. The abbess seemed startled, but then cleared her throat, fussed for her glasses, and folded her hands neatly.

“Yes, child, hello.”

Sister Theresa looked at the floor.

“What brings you to my office, child?”

“Sister Joan told me to come here.”

“Instead of working in the garden?”

“I felt tired, Mother.”

“Oh. Tired again.” Mother Anne sighed. “Come sit down, child. What kind of malaise is this?”

Sister Theresa sat down. She said nothing, even though she could feel Mother Anne waiting.

“I have noticed,” Mother Anne continued, “that you have not taken Communion for several weeks now.”

Sister Theresa swallowed and studied the crucifix on the wall. It was a gift from the founding home of their order in France. The wounds gleamed with tiny bloodstones, beaded along the cuts.

“You do understand that Communion is essential to our community? That God is the bread of life, and to share it means—” Mother Anne took a breath. “You do understand, daughter?”

Sister Theresa nodded into her lap. “I understand, but—”

Mother Anne nodded, urging her to continue.

“The last time I took Communion, the wafer tasted like . . . nothing. Like dust. It’s supposed to be some kind of transcendent experience, but it’s not, for me. It hasn’t ever been. I know it should be and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

Mother Anne looked at her in surprise. “I don’t know how you think it’s supposed to taste,” she said. “It’s just wheat. It is pure so that it can be a vessel for God.”

Sister Theresa’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t understand why the vessel has to be so bland if it’s God,” she said. “God created the universe! He must like colors and flavors. And it’s not just that. Everything is the same here every day. I miss home . . . at dinnertime, when Mama would make c-c-custard—” Her voice became thick and she stopped speaking. Tears ran down her face.

Mother Anne leaned forward, her voice trembling both with compassion and zeal. “But Daughter, that is how life is supposed to be here: pure! uncorrupted! We live in purity because God is pure—because that’s how we can come to know him.”

Sister Theresa only heaved and hiccoughed.

Mother Anne leaned back in her chair. “There was a girl I knew here, long before your time,” she said. “She came to Our Savior of the Plains when she was only sixteen. Not much younger than you are now, child. I liked her very much. But she was very restless.”

Sister Theresa looked up, finally meeting Mother Anne’s eyes.

“She thought life here was so dull. Nothing could please her. She wanted a convent in the city. In Sioux Falls, or even St. Paul. She would say, oh, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that. She even ran away once.”

Sister Theresa’s eyebrows rose. “She what? What happened?”

“Well, after two days on these plains, with no food, she came back. And, she’d had a vision.”

“What vision?”

Bright yellow sunlight broke through the clouds and sprayed through the windows, lighting every dust mote.

“Jesus. In the flesh. He told her to come back to the convent.”

Sister Theresa’s eyes went wide.

“That’s it? And she came back?”

“She did. You can ask her about it, too.”

“I can?”

“Of course. She is our beloved Sister Genevieve.”

It was late afternoon, a little before suppertime. Sister Theresa walked through the living quarters. The last room belonged to Sister Genevieve, and faced west. Zinnia-red sunlight poured through her open door.

Sister Theresa knocked on the doorframe.

Sister Genevieve looked up from her kneeler, a rosary dripping from her hand.

Manna would drop slowly and drift to the ground.

“I’m sorry,” said Sister Theresa. “I’ll come back another time.”

“Oh no! Little Sister Theresa!” Sister Genevieve’s face had cracked into an ecstatic smile. “Come in, child.”

Sister Genevieve coaxed Sister Theresa from the doorframe to a small table by the window, which had two seats, one for her and one for a visitor. In her very old age, Sister Genevieve bent to the right like a stalk of willow. It suited her; she had a great capacity for pleasure, and her body seemed to be always in mid-swoon. She bent in pleasure to sip hot soup, to welcome a visitor, to see an autumn bouquet at the altar. In the face of such sweetness, Sister Theresa always felt shy, even embarrassed around her.

“I was just praying for you,” said Sister Genevieve, winking.

“For me?” said Sister Theresa.

“Yes, child,” said Sister Genevieve, fussing in a drawer of her bedside table. “I always think of you. I think how hard it must be, being so young! And you’re so pretty! And all of us are such old birds. Out here on the plains like a bunch of Jane-the-Baptists. We’re used to it. But you have such soft hands!”

Sister Theresa blushed, and put her hands away, smiling.

Sister Genevieve straightened up. She had an apple-red ceramic jar in one hand, and two spoons in the other. Sister Theresa knew what it was. More than anything, Sister Genevieve loved honey, and loved to share it.

She sat down and lifted the cover. “Now come, take this spoon, child. This is from a harvest early last spring. It’s reddish, see? See that red color? That’s because of the Indian paintbrush growing wild on those hills in the north. They’re everywhere.”

Sister Theresa dipped into the jar, and drew up a spoonful of honey. Her other hand came out to cup the air beneath it as she leaned forward to guide the spoon into her mouth.

Sister Genevieve watched her, eagerly asking, “Isn’t that good?”

Sister Theresa closed her eyes, now, and tasted the honey. It was sweet beyond hope. She tasted longer, rolling the honey in her mouth. Her whole mind was wrapped in it. She felt suspended in midair. In her mind came a vision of the South Dakota sky, wide and cloudless: here in this honey was the wind, the sun, the earth. She could even taste the particular redness of the Indian paintbrush: the flower, the petal, the pollen. Warmth flooded her skin, filled her stomach, and sank to her toes. Her heart was beating faster. When she opened her eyes at last, she did not see the same world as when she had closed them.

“Yes,” she said in answer.

Sister Genevieve’s face relaxed into a smile. “Sister Marie gave it to me as a gift from the hives, because we had too much. ‘How could we use all this honey?’ she said. And I said, ‘Well, Sister Marie! I can put it to use for sure. For sure!’”

Sister Theresa smiled, mostly to herself. Many of the sisters knew that Sister Genevieve loved honey, so they made any excuse to supply it to her.

Sister Genevieve put a hand on hers. Her fingers were long and thin, and translucent skin coated a lattice of blue veins. “I am so glad you’re here,” said Sister Genevieve. “As soon as I saw you, I thought, ‘Now that girl. That girl is a warrior for the Lord!’”

Sister Theresa laughed out loud. “What?” she said.

“You remind me of myself at your age, child,” said Sister Genevieve, suddenly grave.

“Yes,” said Sister Theresa. “Mother Anne told me that when you were my age, you wanted to leave.”

Sister Genevieve nodded.

“Did you really see Our Lord?”

“Clear as day,” said Sister Genevieve. “Clear as day. I’d been lost. I was so cold and hungry. I was walking over a little rise when, there he was, sitting on a branch of a lone sweet gum tree. Little sister, he had on a beautiful scarlet robe, the brightest red you’ve ever seen, with every other kind of color in it. Oh, I wish you could have seen it! And he said, ‘Dear heart, where are you going?’ And I said, ‘My Lord, I wanted to get out of that place and get out into the world. But I’ve gotten lost.’ He said, ‘What will you find out in the world?’ I felt a little silly, but I said, ‘Lord, I want to stop all this purity nonsense; what is so bad about rich things? or wearing ribbons in my hair, or city lights?’ He said, ‘Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.’ Of course I knew that was straight from the Book of Isaiah, but I didn’t know what he meant. I was feeling impatient, so I said, ‘What on earth do you mean?’ Then his face collapsed a little, like he wanted so badly to explain something to me, but couldn’t. Then he said . . .” Sister Genevieve seemed to lose her train of thought, and stared out the window towards the setting sun.

Sister Theresa searched her face. “He said what?”

Sister Genevieve was silent for so long that Sister Theresa thought she hadn’t heard her. Then she pulled her gaze away from the sun, and looked Sister Theresa directly in the eyes. “He said, ‘Everything is corrupted, always.’” She said it with a laugh in her voice, as if she were telling a joke she didn’t understand.

Sister Theresa frowned. “What a terrible thing,” she said. “What do you suppose he meant?”

“I don’t know, child. I’ve asked him again and again in prayer but I never seem to get anywhere.”

“Maybe he means that the world is corrupt and we have to be pure. That’s what Mother Anne says—?”

Sister Genevieve smiled and swirled her spoon in the honey jar. “Perhaps, child.”

Sister Theresa ascended the wooden steps into the confessional and sat down. She heard Father Dykstra clear his throat on the other side of the partition.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been seven days since my last confession.”

“Mmm.”

Sister Theresa could picture him leaning towards the screen, straining his old ears. She tried to clear the image from her mind: across the screen was not a dark confessional, but a royal hearing room. God was a king, a majestic copper-skinned man with a flowing white beard. His brow was decked with rubies. He leaned forward from his throne and his eyes sparkled, inviting her to speak.

“Father, I have not been joyful of late. I have been sitting out my work in the garden.” She swallowed. “This hurts the community.”

“Mmm.” An acknowledgment.

“Also, I stopped taking Communion. It tasted wrong. I’m sorry.”

There was a silence. She heard Father Dykstra’s feet scrape the floor.

“I talked to Mother Anne, and she recommended that I come confess myself. And also that I begin working in the kitchen, not just to help with the meals, but to make the wafers for Communion. To make them as pure as possible. She says this work will help me understand the need for purity in our lives.”

There was another silence. She was about to launch into the final prayer when Father Dykstra spoke.

“Don’t keep it in your mouth.”

Sister Theresa made a face, then was grateful for the darkness. “Pardon?”

“Communion.”

“Oh?”

“Don’t want to spoil it.”

“It . . . spoils it if you keep it in your mouth?”

“Got to swallow right away. Don’t taste it. Don’t chew it.”

“That’s what I’ve been taught. But . . . why?”

“Gets corrupted.”

Sister Theresa wished she had Sister Joan’s patience. “Why does it get corrupted?”

Father Dykstra heaved a long sigh, stirring in his seat. “God is God. You’re human. Keep God’s flesh on your tongue and God will leave you.”

“Oh!” Sister Theresa had finally gotten more than a few words, but felt no less confused. “I won’t, then. Thank you, Father.”

“Mmph.” He was finished.

She said her final prayer. Father Dykstra muttered an absolution. She stepped back into the echoing silence of the sanctuary.

Sister Theresa opened the door to the kitchen. She smelled earthy potato, tangy onion, and the pale odor of milk. Two other nuns were there. They kneaded dough with muscular hands and grabbed handfuls of flour that hung like incense, cascading down the air. Sister Theresa unhooked an apron from the brass hanger on the wall, and pulled it on hurriedly, like a little girl pulling on a new Sunday dress.

Her body seemed to be always in mid-swoon.

At dinner tonight, Sister Genevieve had said to the table, rather loudly, that Sister Theresa had a “gift.” At this, Sister Theresa swallowed and looked to Mother Anne. Nuns were not supposed to be “special” or, even if they were, be recognized for it. Nevertheless, she was happy in her new work.

One night, she served the potato soup with starbursts of dill. Another night, she made chicken legs in a white wine sauce. And tonight, the bread had arrived with a modest strawberry compote, for dipping. Sister Theresa had watched the sisters out of the corner of her eye. Sister Genevieve drew attention to the compote, nudging the nun next to her to recruit her into her sense of admiration. Mother Anne acknowledged it with a small smile, but did not comment on it. Sister Joan stuck her finger in it first. Father Dykstra just stared at it.

After dinner, Sister Theresa cleared the table, and began work on the Communion wafers. They had to be baked fresh every night. The ingredients were simple, but the process was laborious. She had to ensure purity. It was her daily devotion.

She ground the flour and salt three times, picking through for foreign particles. She carried up fresh cold water from the well. She dropped tiny dollops onto a tray and marked each of them with a cross, using a small knife she sharpened every night, and saved only for this purpose. The oven door swallowed them up in the final purification of heat. She imagined them puffing up, their crosses deepening.

One night, when the wafers had been made and put away, Sister Theresa stood surveying the kitchen. She was alone. Near the table’s edge, there was a bowl of leftover strawberry compote. Her mouth watered at the memory of its taste. She pulled a small jar off the shelf and spooned in the rich red sauce. She could keep it in her room for a special treat, just like Sister Genevieve kept honey. Tucking it under the folds of her cloak, she then damped the lamp and left the kitchen in darkness.

Every morning, Father Dykstra celebrated Mass for the nuns. The little community only took up two rows of the old stone sanctuary. Father Dykstra moved slowly from one end of the altar platform to the other, muttering the Mass. He held the wafer aloft, his Latin reaching stentorian pitch.

Hoc est enim corpus meum!

The wafer was now transformed into God Himself. Father Dykstra descended the steps, crabwise, to the little congregation. Sister Theresa stood in line to receive. Father Dykstra fumbled for a wafer. She held out her hands, one cupped inside the other. Father Dykstra muttered Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi and pressed it into her palm. She could not help but think: This is the work of my hands.

Sister Theresa slipped the wafer into her mouth. She began to swallow.

But then, she stopped herself. She could not say why.

She sat back down, glancing back at Father Dykstra to make sure he wasn’t looking, and sucked at the wafer. It collapsed. It began to break apart. She kept her head down.

As soon as Mass was over, Sister Theresa strode out the door in the back of the sanctuary. Her steps fell heavy on the flagstones. She reached her room, whirled, and shut the door. She sat on her bed. Having kept her tongue still for so many minutes, she released it. Saliva flooded in. The wafer tasted sugary; it had begun to break down.

Sister Theresa leaned over, reached beneath her bed, and drew up the little jar of strawberry compote. She opened it. She scooped up the glaze and kissed it off.

She leaned back on her bed and closed her eyes and listened for flavors. First, the taste of the compote: fresh strawberries, brown sugar syrup, and a trace of the ancient rum she’d found hidden on a back shelf. Then the more humble, earthen notes of the bread itself: flour, salt, and well water.

Sister Theresa squeezed her eyes shut even more, and a new darkness washed in. She saw herself drawing the tray out of the oven, and setting it down on the table to cool. She felt such pride. She admired the wafers, sighing back to a flat shape. Their heat made the air ripple. Holding the tray in her hands, Sister Theresa swept open the door to the refectory. There, seated at the long table, were all the people of her convent. They sat up smiling. A thousand candles were lit around them. Everyone was talking, touching each other, hands upon head and shoulder and cheek. In their midst was a great turkey, hot-crispy-golden, stuffed with sweet potato bread. Then Sister Theresa could see that each of them had a supper dish piled high, each with different foods on her plate. On Mother Anne’s plate there was a great shank of lamb next to a bowl of thick, creamy soup. Sister Joan presided over a plate laden with steak and potatoes. Sister Genevieve talked excitedly over a huge slice of meat pie and a pot of honey all her own. She was talking to Father Dykstra, who may or may not have been listening to her, because he sat with an expression of speechless joy at his enormous plate of macaroni and cheese.

“Ahhh, little Sister!” Sister Genevieve had seen her. She rose from her chair and approached her, heralding her, with arms wide open. Everyone was glowing, expectant—a hush had fallen. “You have brought us the bread of life!”

Once Sister Theresa knew how to procure these visions, she could not stop.

Merely holding the wafer on her tongue was no longer enough. She took to stealing the consecrated wafer from Mass altogether. She found a way to tuck the wafer into a fold of her wimple. After Mass, then, she did not have to rush. She merely found a quiet moment to slip away to her room. Sitting on her bed, she withdrew the wafer and stared at it in her hands. This is God Himself. God incarnate in a little piece of bread. Flesh straight from the Cross on Calvary, and it’s sitting here in my palm.

And then she would reach under her bed to select a jar, one of five or six she now kept under her bed.

Her visions had become more extravagant. Yesterday, Sister Theresa had dipped the wafer in maple syrup before eating it. Then she leaned back and watched the vision unfold behind her eyelids. She always began in the kitchen, and then entered the refectory through the swinging doors, bearing a golden dish of warm Communion wafers. Now, at this table of her dreams, the sisters no longer wore habits of black, but great gowns in autumnal colors: vermillion, mustard, soil-black. Of course Sister Genevieve wore a regal gown of deep honey velvet, and amber earrings dripped from her ancient ears. They stood together, clasped hands and raised them together. They took the wafers and distributed them amongst themselves. There were no plates of food now. There were only bowls covering the long table, dozens of bowls, holding every color and consistency of sauce, puree, glaze, dressing, compote. With great reverence they dipped their wafers into the sauces and fed them to each other, and each one tipped her face to the ceiling with eyes closed. They were having their own visions, now. Behind their closed lids, they sat down at their own communal tables. The people at those tables fed each other too, and their heads tipped back, and then they were seeing even further tables, and so on, until all of humanity was attending the feast, dipping the bread and feeding each other.

One day Sister Theresa came back with the wafer as usual. She reached under her bed and withdrew a jar of leftover deviled egg filling, rich and creamy and folded with bright red paprika. She unscrewed the squeaky metal lid and plunged her finger down into it. Then, balancing the wafer in one palm and the filling on her finger, she moved awkwardly to position her head on the pillow.

There was a knock at the door. Sister Theresa froze. She had left it unlocked; ajar, even—how could she have been so careless? She heard Mother Anne’s voice coming to her as if in a dream. “Daughter Theresa?” she called. “Are you—”

Mother Anne opened the door and looked in. Sister Theresa was half-lying on her bed, the Holy Eucharist in one hand, and egg paste in the other.

Mother Anne stood in the doorway. Sister Theresa remained silent and frozen. There was no way to explain anything. Her face drained of blood.

“Daughter. What is the meaning of this?”

Sister Theresa grasped for words. “This is—I just—”

“What is this?” Mother Anne’s voice trembled.

Sister Theresa was aware of her finger still hanging in the air, the egg puree still sitting on her fingertip. She said nothing.

“What is that? What are you doing?” Mother Anne’s lips had turned white. “Please tell me. Please tell me the meaning of this.”

Sister Theresa lowered her hands until they rested on the bed. Tears filled her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Father Dykstra’s head popped above the horizon. Sister Joan got up and ambled in his direction. He stopped. She stopped. They waited.

Father Dykstra made the first gambit. “See them clouds?”

“Looks like rain again.”

Silence followed. The wind blew between them, creamy and cold against their faces.

Father Dykstra’s one hand flapped in the grasp of the other.

“Saw an Indian fellow in my apple tree.”

“Did you now.”

“Just sittin’ in a branch.”

Sister Joan lifted her head to sniff the wind, looking beyond Father Dykstra’s bowed head towards the west, where the sun was falling towards the horizon.

“That girl. Locked up?”

Sister Joan lowered her head to regard him coolly, with cornflower-blue eyes, the one lovely feature in her primordial face. “Nope. In seclusion.”

Father Dykstra cleared his throat. “Ain’t come to Mass.”

“She will again. Might tomorrow, even.”

Another silence followed. Then, at the same moment, each of them began moving again. Sister Joan turned back to the garden: four long bars of brown dirt. Nuns bent over, digging with canvas gloves. Father Dykstra took his daily tour. He walked the rows to see what had been sown.

Sister Theresa stepped into the sanctuary and looked up. Shafts of morning light interlaced like fingers in the open air. Dust hung and sparkled. She looked down again, quickly. She focused on the cement between the flagstones. She took a seat in the second row, near the outer aisle. She would have chosen the farthest position, the most humble, but Sister Genevieve was sitting there. Sister Theresa sat down next to her. Sister Genevieve whispered, “So good to have you back, young one,” squeezing her hand and holding it hard.

Sister Theresa nodded and looked away, quickly enough not to let Sister Genevieve see her eyes fill with tears.

Sister Theresa was half-lying on her bed, the Holy Eucharist in one hand, and egg paste in the other.

For the whole Mass, she could not focus. She could only replay Mother Anne’s discovery of her. Caught, shamed. Now she only wondered whether her punishment had been enough. Whether she had stayed in seclusion long enough. Whether her confession to Father Dykstra had been genuine enough. She dared not even look in the direction of Mother Anne. She kept her forehead pressed to her folded thumbs.

When the time came for Communion, the nuns got to their feet. Sister Theresa did not budge. She was not pure; it would be inappropriate for her to even approach the altar. She must wait until her own corruption had faded away. She stayed within the dark cave of her folded arms. She closed her eyes.

A cry echoed with in the sanctuary. Startled, Sister Theresa looked up.

It was Sister Joan.

Sister Theresa blinked. She could not believe what she was seeing. That big old pillar of a nun was jumping up and down, her habit billowing around her with every little hop. Her arms were spread to her sides, her hands scraping the air.

But Sister Joan was not the only one. Father Dykstra was rocking back and forth on his heels, palm holding his own skull, almost tenderly; the golden dish of wafers swayed precariously in his other hand. Sister Genevieve had swept one hand across her heart, clutching at the railing with the other. “Oh God! Oh God!” she cried as she collapsed.

Sister Theresa got to her feet, heart pounding, and shoved herself out of the pew. She began to hear words.

“Bon-bons! I only got ’em once! My brother stole ’em for us and we ate ’em behind the general store!” exclaimed Sister Joan, stringing more words together than Sister Theresa had ever heard her utter in a day.

“Pine nut bread!” called Father Dykstra. “The Shoshone woman made it for me! I’d forgotten, I’d forgotten!” Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

“Honey! I taste honey! Oh my sweet Lord!” moaned Sister Genevieve, collapsing onto the floor.

Sister Theresa hurried to her, dodging out of the way of all her sisters who were swaying about, as if in a dance. “Goat cheese from Millie!” “Real Belgian chocolate!” “Peaches, summer peaches, from the tree in my garden!” They staggered towards each other, holding out their hands, beseeching.

Sister Theresa dropped to the floor where Sister Genevieve lay, now still and panting. Her eyes fell upon Sister Theresa, and her face softened. Her frail body relaxed against the flagstones.

“I taste honey,” she said.

Sister Theresa nodded. “I know, Sister Genevieve. I can hear you.”

Sister Genevieve took her hand for the second time, and said, “God corrupts everything.”

She laid her head down.

Father Dykstra picked his way down the grassy hill from his cottage above. Sister Joan strode to meet him at its foot. The river thundered at her back.

As they came within a stone’s throw, as if by silent agreement, they stopped at the same time. Grasses of green and gold flowed around their legs. The verdant mountains rose up all around them, violet, ale, and sage in the rising sun.

“Magnolia’s blooming.”

“Yep, out by the barn.”

Father Dykstra shifted from one foot to the other. Sister Joan had her fists planted on her hips, staring upriver, where the valley’s green mouth opened eastward.

“I got something.”

“Do you now.”

Father Dykstra swung his arm around front. He was holding a burlap sack full of round objects. He held it out at arm’s length, like a fisherman’s catch.

“Apples,” he explained.

“For what?”

“For the girl.”

“The girl?”

“The one who cooks. She can use ’em.”

“Mmm.”

“The Indian feller gave ’em to me.”

“Did he now.” Sister Joan tucked the sack under one broad arm.

“Just sittin’ there in a tree. Wearin’ green.”

“Mmm.”

“He was all in green,” he pressed.

“Green?”

“Green like—” Father Dykstra waved his arm, gesturing at the earth.

“Grass,” said Sister Joan.

“Grass!” Father Dykstra chortled. “If it’s grass it’s like no grass I ever seen.”

There was silence between them. The river flowed on behind them. Its thundering had thrown water into the air, and the vapor cast rainbows, crossing and interlacing in the light.

“Grass with every kind of other thing in it,” said Sister Joan.

“Yes,” said Father Dykstra, nodding violently. “Yes.”

They both stood, heads bowed, contemplating the grass for a long while. Then, as if a train had passed and the crossbar lifted, they turned and went their ways.