The Sisters of the Sacred Heart
Michael F. Flynn
“Have you ever thought about giving your heart to God?”
Theresa Esperanza sat in the swaying close-packed subway car and wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. She wadded it up and squeezed it with her fist and looked up at the old woman facing her in the aisle. “What did you say?”
The old woman had wide, black, obsidian eyes that caressed Terri’s face. “A señorita as lovely as you should not be crying.” She reached out and touched Terri on the arm. Her skin was dark, rusty brown; her voice echoed of jungle valleys. The touch was warm, dry, feather-light.
Terri pulled away. She did not want this woman’s sympathy. She wanted only to be left alone, to nurse her hurts in private. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s only a cold. Really.”
The train jerked and slowed. “This is my stop,” she said quickly and stood, gripping the pole to keep her balance. She turned her back on the woman and faced the dirty windows. Her reflection was a ghost drifting past dull, stained mosaic tiles. The grime looked like billowing brown smoke enveloping her image. Men and women crowded in front of the doors, closing around Terri like the waters behind a dam.
The train hissed and stopped and the doors sighed open. Terri felt a tug on her sleeve and the old woman pressed a tattered card into her hand. “Someday you may feel the call,” she said. Then Terri was swept onto the platform.
A flash flood of humanity curled around her like waters around a rock; split into streams that poured up various stairways; and left her behind on the platform like flotsam. Or like jetsam, she thought. Jetsam was cargo thrown overboard to lighten the load. That seemed more accurate. Turning, she faced the subway tracks. She couldn’t believe she had been so naïve.
She stepped to the edge of the platform and looked down. Worn, tired shoes on the faded yellow stripe. Rails, shiny where a million wheels had polished them. Ties smelling of creosote. Trash fluttering in the wake of the departed train. The third rail hummed. How many volts did it carry? What would happen if… Her hands clenched and unclenched.
“Hey! You there! Step back!”
Terri looked up; saw the transit cop. She hung her head and backed away from the edge, flushing. She would never have jumped. It had just been a melodramatic fantasy, a play for pity. And she hadn’t gotten it even from herself.
She opened her purse to stuff her handkerchief back inside and noticed the card. It was a gray rectangle, bent at one corner; printed in black, Roman lettering. Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Prayer meetings: First Friday of each month. An address in the Village.
She shoved the handkerchief into the purse and dropped the card into the trash basket strapped to the pillar and waited for the next train: a tiny dot of light, distant down the tunnel.
* * *
“So, how’d it go?” Stelios Daskolopoulis wiped the countertop with a clean rag, picked up three half-empty water glasses with the fingers of his left hand and carried them over to the sink. “Did you get the part?”
Terri wouldn’t look at him. She ran her pencil down the tab, adding the numbers in her head. “No, I didn’t get it.” Total $4.87. A 15% tip would be 49¢ plus another 24¢. Call it 70¢. People never rounded up when they were tipping. She pulled the sheet off the pad. Seventy cents. She glanced again at the sour-faced man sitting at #12. She’d be lucky to get even that much.
“Too bad,” said Stelios. He seemed genuinely unhappy. “I thought you had an inside track. That boy friend of yours... What’s his name?”
“Larry.” She handed the check to the man at the table. “Here you go, sir. I hope you enjoyed your lunch.”
“I’ve had worse,” he allowed grudgingly. He pulled a change-purse out of his pocket and squeezed it open. He plucked coins out gingerly, one at a time. Terri gathered up his dishes and tried to seem as if she were not watching. Christ, how many men carried change purses any more?
“Yeah, Larry,” said Stelios. Terri set the dirty dishes on the counter and Stelios took them and dunked them in the sink. “What’s the matter, he wouldn’t come through for you?”
“No, I wouldn’t come through for him.”
* * *
Knapp, the super, was waiting in the hallway outside his apartment when she entered the apartment building through the dingy vestibule. Torn undershirt. Bare feet shoved into house shoes. Cigarette dangling from whiskered lips. A perfect ornament for the edifice.
“There you are.” He spoke as if he had made an astonishing discovery. Terri ducked her head and tried to go around him, but he sidestepped and blocked her path. “Not so fast,” he told her. “Today’s the fourteenth. Rent’s due tomorrow.”
She stepped away from him. “I’ve got—most of it. I’ll have the rest tomorrow.”
He shook his head. “Due date’s the foist, y’know.” His cigarette danced as he spoke; curls of smoke wreathed his head. “You been getting later each month. Law says you get fifteen days grace; but I don’t gotta carry you any more’n that.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ll have it for you tomorrow.”
Knapp shrugged. “Hey, I’m only the super. Management company makes the rules.”
“I’ve got most of it,” she repeated. She didn’t know what else she could say. It didn’t matter what she said.
He reached up and took the cigarette from his mouth. “Tell you what. I could make up the difference for you—if it ain’t too much an’ if ya pay me back.”
She looked at him. “You?”
Sure. I could do it for you every month.” He reached out and ran his index finger down her left sleeve. “Depends how you pay me back.”
The track of his finger was a line of fire up her arm. “No.” She brushed his hands away.
Knapp laughed. “What’s the big deal?”
She pushed to go past him.
He plucked her sleeve. “Hey! I said, what’s the big deal? You need something; I need something. It’s just a business proposition.” He laughed.
“I said, No!”
“Aw, c’mon,” he said. “It ain’t like you never...” He stopped suddenly and looked into her eyes. He had little, marble pig-eyes, red-rimmed and runny from the cigarette smoke. She twisted her face to the side. “Shit,” he said. “You’re a virgin, aincha?”
Knapp had seemed a man impossible to shock; yet his jaw hung open so far that the dangling cigarette balanced precariously. “Ya mean, ya never? Jeez, that’s sick.” Then he laughed. “But I got the cure.”
She pulled away at last and stumbled up the stairs. “And I’ve got principles,” she said. A weak retort, it was all she had.
“Yeah?” She heard his voice loud and angry behind her. “Well you can go fuck with your principles! See if they’ll pay the rent for you! I’m doing you a goddamn favor. A stringy broad like you can’t get too many offers.”
She fumbled the key out of her purse, twisted her way through the door, and slammed it shut behind her. She heard him banging on the door and held her hands over her ears. “You hear me, bitch? You got till tomorrow. I get laid, or I get paid. Otherwise, you’re outta here.”
Run. Hide. What else was there? Only waiting for the next train. But the next train after Larry was Knapp. And the one after Knapp? She reached into her purse and pulled out her handkerchief and pressed it to her face. Something stiff poked her in the cheek. She shook the cloth and a bent, gray card fluttered to the floor.
She picked it up and studied it. Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Funny. She thought she had thrown the card in the trash on the subway platform. Sisters of the Sacred Heart, she read again. That was an answer, wasn’t it? Escape from the world entirely. Jump into a hole and pull the hole in after you. No more worries.
She laughed. The sound surprised her and she laughed again, dropped the card in the trash can by the battered old chair that adorned the parlor. Here she was seriously considering the convent, and she wasn’t even Catholic.
* * *
In the morning she stood before the bathroom mirror in her slip brushing her hair. “Today is a new day,” she told her reflection. “Anything can happen.” The tines of the brush caught in a tangle and she winced as she tugged free. A new day. Sure. Anything can happen. She had counted her savings last night. If she figured an average day for tips, she would bring home enough today to pay Knapp. Next month? She wasn’t sure. She would deal with next month next month.
Not that she would ever have taken Knapp up on his offer.
Not even if it had meant eviction? She saw twin spots of color appear on her cheeks.
No, not even then. She paused and studied her reflection. She was sure of it. Not even then.
What had Knapp meant, that a woman like herself wouldn’t get too many offers? Hadn’t she just gotten two offers in as many days? There was something comic about that. She turned sideways and checked her bust line in the mirror. She wasn’t top-heavy, but she wasn’t exactly flat-chested, either.
As for her figure... She faced forward and clasped her hands behind her neck. It was hard to tell without a full-length mirror, and the bottom corners of the mirror were discolored, as if by streamers of dull, brown smoke. They seemed to curl up the sides of the glass, and there must have been imperfections in the surface, for when she moved her head the smoke seemed to billow. She stood on tip-toe trying to see her waist and hips. When you were close to a mirror, you could see that the image extended beyond the edges of the frame.
She had always wondered how a mirror could reflect what wasn’t actually in front of it. It seemed odd, mysterious. As if she were peering through a window at another world and not at an image of her own. She wondered if the Terri on the other side of the looking glass had the same problems.
No, she decided. The mirror reversed everything. The mirror-Terri would be troubled by too much money; by more gallant suitors, who… She giggled suddenly.
Imagine being annoyed because men did not want to poke into her!
* * *
Breakfast was two slices of toast, no butter, and a cup of decaffeinated coffee made from crystals. The table was an ancient metal and Formica job with one loose leg. She sat by the window in the kitchenette, letting the sunlight warm her as it struggled through the treetop leaves outside her window. The waving branches created flickering patches of light: irregular squares and polygons dancing across the glass.
She thought about calling Larry. Maybe she had misunderstood him. Misunderstood his intentions. They would have a good laugh over it. Maybe they could get back together.
She set her cup down and noticed the card the Mexican woman had given her on the subway. It stood propped against the saltshaker. She didn’t remember putting it there, but she remembered her thoughts of last night and laughed again. Sister Terri. Poverty, chastity, and obedience. Weren’t those the vows that sisters took? Well, she had the first two down cold! But only for the time being; until the right job or the right man came along. She wasn’t a prude, after all. Sex wasn’t dirty. It was wonderful, precious. Too precious to squander for money or favors or even passing fancy. Sometimes she dreamed about what it must be like.
Motion in the corner of her eye pulled her head toward the window and she gasped in delight. A hummingbird hovered there just beyond the glass, wings a-blur, dancing in quick, abrupt turns among the light patches the sun tossed through the tree.
“Wheat,” said the bird. “Wheat.”
“Wheat,” Terri replied. She folded her arms on the tabletop and rested her chin on them. “Well, aren’t you lovely!” The bird hovered, and Terri wondered how it managed the trick. She pressed a finger to the glass.
And the bird struck with its beak! She yanked her hand back, afraid that her action had caused the creature to harm itself. But it fluttered there just beyond her reach, seemingly none the worse.
She checked the time, hastily gulped the remains of her coffee, and reached across the table for her purse. Stelios would be upset if she were late. She stood, smoothed her skirt, turned to go.
And heard a gentle tapping at the window.
She turned and saw that the hummingbird was still there, suspended in the air, bumping up against the window. She locked gazes with it and the moment seemed to stretch out forever. She stared and she stared and it suddenly seemed as if the bird were staring back. The tiny, black eyes followed her movements, watching her patiently. But birds don’t do that! she thought. They don’t! A fist squeezed her chest. “Go away!” she said. She swatted the window backhand with her fingers. “Go away!”
“Wheat,” said the bird.
* * *
“Hummingbirds don’t go ‘wheat,’” Stelios told her. “They hum. That’s why they’re called hummingbirds. Right, Luis?” He pressed buttons on the register and the cash drawer chimed and slid out.
Terri paused in cleaning the table. She twisted the rag between her fists. “This one did,” she said. “It was... Well, frightening, somehow.”
“Frightening? Here’s your change, Luis. See you tomorrow.”
Luis shifted on his feet, looked at Terri, and said, “Did you know the Aztecs worshipped a hummingbird god?”
“A god,” said Stelios doubtfully.
“Yes. Huitzlipochtli, the Hummingbird Wizard. And there was the Smoking Mirror, too.” He flushed. “You wouldn’t like them, Miss Terri. The priests sliced the living hearts from their victims and offered them to the gods. We Christians have the better idea. At the communion table, it is we who eat the God.” He flushed again and looked at Terri. “But there was the Feathered Serpent, too. A kind god. Some say he was the Christ, who came to save the Aztecs—and failed.” He hesitated. “I will be going,” he said, making it half a question.
Terri gave him a vague smile and Luis beamed as he left.
Stelios shook his head. “Feathered Serpents? That Luis. I think he is sweet on you. Did you see those calf-eyes? No, you never do. Luis is a nice boy, but he needs to learn what to say to a girl. Not so much the college classes he takes. What do you say?”
Terri blinked. “I’m sorry. I was still thinking about the hummingbird this morning.”
Stelios sighed. “A little bird like that, how could it hurt you?”
She wiped the table top in hard, circular swipes. Images of Tippi Hedren surrounded by maddened seagulls in that old Hitchcock movie. Pecking, tearing. But this was only a single bird. Small and pretty. It hadn’t tried to harm her. It had only...
“I don’t know. It was the way it stared at me. Like it knew.”
“Knew? Knew what?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Things.” She looked down and saw herself dimly in the Plexiglas table top. Brown streamers stained the reflection and she scrubbed harder.
* * *
The tips weren’t quite enough. She added them up twice, three times, stacking the coins this way and that on the counter, hoping that somehow she had miscounted. The coins clinked when she stacked them—tiny, metallic laughter.
An average day would have done it; but half the time you were below average. She was three dollars short of what she needed for the rent. That wasn’t much. Maybe Knapp would take it anyway? She knew that answer. She could picture his small, piggish eyes; his fat, moist lips; smell his smoking breath on her face. At least Larry had been clean.
“What’s wrong, Terri?”
She jerked at Stelios’ voice; and the stacks of quarters, dimes, nickels spilled and rolled across the counter top. They dropped over the edge and clattered like hailstones on the floor. She scooped her arm around the spinning change, slapping flat the gaily pirouetting nickels and dimes. Then she carefully gathered the coins together and slid them off the counter into her purse. Stelios stooped and picked coins off the floor where they had fallen and handed them to her.
“It’s nothing, really. Just—”
“Just what? Hey, you got problems, you can tell me about them. Uncle Stelios, eh?” He took a seat on the counter stool next to her. “You need money, yes?”
She hung her head. “For the rent. It was my own fault. I didn’t think ahead. I could have gotten that acting job that Larry had lined up, if I’d only...”
Stelios took her hand with both of his and patted her. “You blame yourself all the time,” he said. “That’s no good. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. Not your fault. Not anybody’s fault.”
She smiled sadly. “I have more than my share of bad luck,” she said.
“People take advantage of you, and then you blame yourself. Some people, they sense that. Like you wear a sign on your back saying, Kick Me.”
“You’ve never taken advantage of me.” She dared to look him in the eye. Maybe that’s what he was leading up to. Maybe it was his turn.
He cocked his head and laughed. “You are a pretty girl; and I like to look at pretty girls. But my Helena... I made her a promise once.” He stood and walked around to the business side of the counter. “You need some money. How much?”
“Three... Three dollars.”
“Is that all? Pfah! Don’t be so shy. Here.” He opened the cash register. “Business hasn’t been so good lately; but three dollars, I got.” He counted out three tattered singles.
Her hands trembled as she took the money. “Oh, thank you. I’ll pay you back. Really, I will.” The money vanished into her purse. “I don’t know what to say.”
Stelios waved a hand. “You already said it. So don’t worry. Just pay your rent.” He put the rest of the cash into a money pouch that he zipped shut. “Only stand up for yourself. Don’t be a victim all the time.”
* * *
Knapp accepted the rent money with ill grace, grumbling about there being too much in coin. Terri thought he was disappointed that he had gotten the money after all. If you didn’t count how repulsive he was, you could almost take it as a compliment. Still, it lifted her spirits for the rest of the evening. Theresa Esperanza, heartbreaker. Stelios was right. She didn’t have to be a victim. It was half in her own mind, anyway. There was no such thing as Fate. Destiny was something you built for yourself.
Sometimes, she imagined that there were other Theresas somewhere; Theresas who were happier than she was. Theresas on the other sides of a thousand mirrors. Successful Theresas who had won without compromise, and who sang and danced across the boards to thunderous applause from the grateful galleries.
And other Theresas who would do whatever it took. Theresas who had slept with Larry. (He would have been considerate, she thought. He would have been professionally smooth. He would have been kind and gentle and generous. But he would not have cared.)
There were even Theresas who had slept with Knapp. Desperate Theresas, beaten Theresas, hopeless Theresas. Theresas who peddled her selves at traffic lights; or kept a bottle in secret for the joy she could find nowhere else.
There were stay-at-home Theresas, poor but proud, helping some plain, decent man squeeze a life from the dusty Kansas soil; and other Theresas trapped on the mind-numbing prairies, longing for the city lights and testing the edge of a knife with her thumb. (There were a great many mirrors, after all; and not all of them gave a true reflection. Some were warped, distorted, fun-house mirrors.)
There were Theresas with strong, clean, confident children who doted on her gentle wisdom. There were Theresas with sullen, secretive, drug-wracked offspring. (This was one of the Theresas who kept the secret bottle.) There were smart, sharp, cool-headed Theresas who dealt in power and position and kept men as toys. Theresas who made clever small-talk at Manhattan cocktail parties. And drab Theresas dreaming at computer screens in a thousand nameless cubicles. Thoughtful, analytical Theresas chalking up blackboards or prying the secrets of the universe from clever experiments. Grease-stained Theresas in coveralls building great, complex machines; or floating weightless above the sapphire earth.
Silent Theresas. Wisecracking Theresas. Theresas pompous and foolish and sweet and courageous and cruel and sarcastic and happy and outgoing and quiet and venal. She was amazed, sometimes, at all the multitudes of Theresas, at all their terrifying variety. Some she could never have been; others, she might have been; some perhaps she still could be, if only she found the right looking glass and stepped through it at just the right time.
But she spent the evening as she always did: In the stuffed chair with the bad spring and a book open on her lap. It was Dickinson this time, a kindred spirit. From the kitchenette came an intermittent tapping at the window. Probably one of the tree branches. But she did not go out to check; and the next morning she skipped breakfast.
* * *
Stelios sat on the stool and rubbed the palms of his hands together slowly. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. Over his shoulder, Terri could see a young couple sitting in the booth by the window, arguing in fierce whispers. She looked at them instead of at Stelios. “What do you mean, you have to let me go?” she asked.
“I can’t afford to pay you no more. Business ain’t so good.” He looked at the counter. “Business ain’t so good,” he repeated. “I got to cut back.”
“You gave me money last week,” she pointed out. But that was silly. What difference did three dollars make?
“So, you needed it worse than I did. That was friendship. This is business. I got the gas and electric bill this morning. Either I pay those or I pay you. If I pay you, they shut me off and I can’t pay you anyway.” He looked up. “You see what a bind I’m in, don’t you, Terri?”
The woman in the booth caught Terri watching and dealt her a glare. Terri averted her eyes and locked gazes with Stelios. “Sure,” she said. “I understand. But... You could have told me earlier.”
He shrugged and played with his hands some more. “I kept hoping I wouldn’t have to. I thought you would get the part in that play.”
Larry. Her fingernails dug into her palms.
“You can still work here, you know. For tips. I just can’t pay you a regular salary. I’ve got to cut expenses. But you can stick around. Maybe business will pick up.”
She took a deep breath and let it out. Stelios’ business was failing. That was her fault, too. If he hadn’t carried her on the payroll so long, maybe he would be in better shape.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I’ve got to look out for myself, too. There are other plays auditioning. And there are—” She took another breath. “There are mirrors to step through.”
* * *
She tore the page off the wall calendar and the new month stared her in the face. A great, big, black numeral one, starting at midnight.
It had been a hellish week, pounding the pavement by day, holed up in her bedroom by night. No one was hiring. Not even diners, let alone shows. Or they were hiring, just not her. A waitress? A dancer? More leg. More bust. Let it hang out. Do me a favor. They didn’t even have to say it; she could hear it sometimes in the way their eyes traveled over her body. Even the women. It’s your turn, baby. Pay your dues the way I had to.
She closed the lid on the suitcase and set the snaps. It wasn’t even full. It contained everything she owned in the world, and it wasn’t even full. She carried it to the bedroom and set it atop the radiator while she raised the window. She had rationed the food just right. The last swallow of milk, the last slice of bread, had been her dinner.
Stay one minute past midnight, and she would owe Knapp rent.
She stepped through the window onto the fire escape, an open latticework of rusted iron. She could see through her feet to the ground, three stories below. A bird soared past her head and she started, coming up against the railing. She swayed a little with the vertigo and gripped the railing in her hand. Ancient paint and rust abraded her palm. Finally, she turned away and fetched her suitcase from inside. She closed the window. Then, she made her way carefully down the stairs.
Every step she took lifted her spirits, and she couldn’t figure out why. She had stayed in her room as long as she could legally claim it, but she had no home now. She had no food. She was going to throw herself on the kindness of strangers. Yet, she felt unaccountably buoyant.
* * *
The door was made of a rich, dark wood with a panel of frosted glass in its center. There was a small, brass plaque and a button bolted to the bricks beside it. Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the plaque read. Terri reached out with a hesitant finger and pressed the button. A muted buzzer sounded inside the building.
The building was brick, and tall for the Village. Twenty stories, she guessed. One of a cluster of low-income apartment blocks that, from the looks of things, might have been built five years ago or fifty. A plume of brown smoke drifted lazily from the roof.
She shifted back and forth on her feet; pressed the buzzer once more. A brown sedan cruised slowly down the street behind her, its headlamps not quite yet unneeded. A haven was all she wanted; someplace quiet where she could think and get her life back together.
A shadow moved behind the glass and the door opened. It was the old, bent woman she had seen on the subway. She was dressed in a flowing robe of black, edged with thin white stripes. She looked up at Terri and opened her arms. “Come in, dear,” she said.
Terri stepped into her arms. “Help me,” she said.
The old woman patted Terri’s back in long, slow, comforting strokes. “We have waited so long for you,” she said.
* * *
There was a wardrobe closet behind the staircase. The sister—her name was Plumaje—opened it and withdrew a black robe with no edging. She handed it to Terri. “Here. Take your own clothes off—yes, everything—and put this on. You must go above and see the priest.”
Terri stood for a moment fingering the robe. The idea of undressing made her nervous; but where else was she to go? Where else was there to go? A cardboard box in Penn Station? No job, no rent; and Knapp. She sighed. When in Rome... “Could you turn your back?” She blushed furiously in the dimness.
Plumaje faced the stairway and buried her face in her hands. “If you keep peace with all,” she murmured, “and bear injuries with humility, God, who sees, will avenge you. The God by whom we live, omnipresent, that knows all thoughts and gives all gifts, without whom we are nothing. Invisible, incorporeal, one God, of perfect perfection and purity, under whose wings we find repose and a sure defense.”
Terri had never been particularly devout, and the old woman’s prayer sounded odd and affected. Self-consciously, Terri unbuttoned her blouse, flashing on Larry doing the same only two weeks before. How bad do you want that job, baby? She hung the blouse on a hook in the closet the cloak had come from. Then she unzipped her skirt.
“The sun will be risen soon,” Plumaje said without turning.
Terri stepped out of the skirt and hung it in the closet. “Is that important?”
She pulled the cloak over her head and adjusted it until it felt right. It was cut like a poncho: circular, with a hole in the center. Under the concealing folds of the black robe, she unfastened her bra, slipped off her panties and hose. The movements were smooth and practiced. It was how she undressed every night.
“All right,” she said. “I’m done.” She stood trembling in her bare feet. The wood floor was cool and even. A light breeze from the stairwell whispered across her legs, raising goose bumps.
Plumaje inspected Terri, nodding her head slowly. Then she took Terri by the arm and guided her toward the stairway.
The stairs were bare, worn wood, stained here and there with black splashes and concave in the center where countless feet had scuffed the wood away. They felt smooth on the bottoms of her soles. Terri craned her neck and looked up the stairwell where a zigzag of banisters dwindled into the dimness of the upper stories.
“How far do we have to climb?”
“To the top.”
She looked at Plumaje. “All the way to the roof? Must we?”
“The priest is waiting. Coming down… will be easier.”
“He has to approve my staying here?”
“Yes. But it is only a formality.” The sister sighed. “So few these days offer their hearts to God.” She covered her face again. “Will you blot us out, O Lord, for ever?” she murmured quietly. “Is the punishment intended, not for our reformation, but for our destruction?” She looked again at Terri, and her eyes were bright and wide and black.
Terri bit her lip. She hated to spoil the old woman’s dreams after the welcome she’d been given; but… “I don’t plan to stay long. Until I can get myself together; make some decisions.”
Plumaje sighed. “I know.”
“I’m not a... What do you call them? A novice, or anything. It’s just that there was nowhere else for me to go.”
Plumaje sighed. “I know.”
“I’m not even Catholic.”
This time, a tired smile. “Neither are we.”
The stairs were steep and shallow, uncomfortable to climb. Terri found that she had to raise her foot higher than usual to reach the next step; and the runner was barely wide enough for her feet. Once or twice she slipped, but the sister braced her with a strong and steady hand. The stairs were so steep, she thought, that if she were to slip, she would tumble all the way to the bottom. Two hundred and sixteen feet, Plumaje had told her in a curious voice, as if it were somehow right that a stairway be that tall.
Well, mortification and self-denial could be comforting. Climbing the stairs could become an end in itself; the repetition, a kind of prayer.
The higher they climbed the darker the stairwell became. Bulbs dangling on cords from the ceiling cast futile globes of light; but the darkness pushed in between them. The black splashes she had noted farther below were more frequent, staining walls, stairs, and banister in broad splotches that ran together until it was almost as if the stairwell had been painted black. The building was old, run-down; the upper floors unused and sealed off; yet it smelled scrubbed and antiseptic, like a hospital room.
Finally they reached the top floor landing and stood before the door that led to the roof. Plumaje hesitated a moment; then turned and regarded her with eyes moist with tears. “Oh, how I envy you.”
Terri was surprised. “You envy me? Whatever for?”
“Because you are blessed by God.”
Terri caressed the sister’s arm. “Thank you. I already feel so much better. No one has ever... I mean, I’ve spent my whole life, well..., waiting for the next train, I suppose. Hoping that the next one would be the right one; that it would take me to where I want to go. But it’s not enough to wait. You’ve got to find a looking glass and step through it. No, you’ve got to leap through it! Or other people will always make your decisions for you. I’ve been a victim all my life. I won’t be a victim any more.”
The sister opened the door to the roof and the cool morning wind caught Terri’s robe and billowed it. The roofing and the bricks of the chimney walls were splashed and encrusted in black and permeated by a pungent rotted smell. Against the distant spires of the careless city she saw the priest, naked in his paint and bright feathers, tending a smoking barbecue grill. In his hand, an obsidian knife flashed. Behind him, a rack of skulls bore empty posts waiting to be filled. To the side, a mirror reflected billowing, brown clouds unknown to the clear blue sky above.
“Just once more,” the sister promised.
Terri felt herself go cold. The Hummingbird Wizard. The Smoking Mirror. Gods who ate the flesh of men. They were here. Hungry for her heart to be offered up.
She did not scream, but turned and raked nails across Plumaje’s flinty face, twisting free from the woman’s iron grip. Run, she thought. But Plumaje had moved to block the doorway. Run, she thought. And turned and sprinted toward the glassy-eyed priest, shedding her black cloak as she did. Smiling in welcome, he turned his weapon toward her for her to impale herself upon it. Run, she thought. And she ran toward the mirror, to leap through it, to the other side, to the other Theresas that waited there.
She grabbed a skull from the grinning rack, hurled it at the lying mirror. It shattered into daggers of glass, and the glass into tendrils of smoke, and the smoke was seized by the wind and taken away. And she was alone on the rooftop. The mirror frame gaped empty. The Weber grill was chilled by ancient coals. The cloak she had worn lay rumpled on the tarpaper. Terri stood and hugged herself against the cold. The only motion was a single, bright feather teased by the wind across the roof.
Michael F. Flynn is author of numerous short stories and several novels, including the Hugo-nominated Eifelheim, in which a 14th century priest trained in Aristotelian natural philosophy and Thomistic theology encounters post-Einsteinian alien travelers in a small German village. Mike resides in his Heimatland in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, just a stone’s throw from New Jersey, which is convenient whenever he finds a loose stone. He lives with his wife of many years, his two grown children, and three grandchildren, which on occasion results in a lively household. He published an earlier version of “The Age of Faith and Reason” in the British journal Faith.