“I look a hundred and one!” the old nun exclaimed at her face in the metal shield, a relic, that hang on the wall in her cell. “My sweet Lord,” she complained, “When will You take this old fossil away from the fatigue of this life?”
The reply came, soothing and comforting, in the depths of her soul, of her heart. She smiled, the wrinkled face lighting up and seeming to recede alarmingly in age. When the young nun, a novice, knocked and entered the room she thought for a second that someone else was standing before the shiny silver shield: a much younger nun, more beautiful and vibrant than the old and wrinkled Sister Katerina Katende that she knew.
When Sister Katerina turned to face the young nun she was back to her old self, and Sister Maria Karungi relaxed, telling herself that she had imagined what she had seen a second ago.
“Mother,” Sister Maria exclaimed, “There is a tuk-tuk here asking for you!”
“Yes,” the old nun nodded. “We are going to the Bukoto flats today, they are expecting us there.”
“Who is expecting us, Mother? We never leave the convent!”
“Today the Lord will make an exception for us. A couple of friends are awaiting.”
“Are we leaving now?”
The old nun turned gently away from the shield and looked down at the young, eager face of her latest novice. She smiled patiently and touched her on the cheek.
“No, my sweetheart. Of course not now. Something more important awaits us first,” and she pointed with her old and wrinkled hand in the direction of the chapel. Sister Maria’s face lit brightly with understanding and she smiled broadly.
“Mass!” she exclaimed. “Of course!”
Sister Katerina had already been visibly shaking for the better part of the past hour by the time the priest bent towards the altar and whispered to the small, white wafer of bread in his hands, “Hoc est enim Corpus Meum”. She was transfixed, in the depths of her heart and mind, on the Image of the Man that was before her. Bearded, cleft chinned, White like snow and impossibly beautiful. He never said a word to her, He merely looked her right in the eye and loved her. She stared back at Him and shook like a reed in the wind. When the altar boy rang the bell and the priest raised the chalice of grape-wine high above his head, the Man in her soul smiled and stretched out a wounded, veined hand towards her. She reached to take it but by this time Sister Agnes was helping her up off the kneeler and guiding her towards the front, towards the sanctuary, where other people had already knelt, in a semi-circle, anticipating their turn to reach their tongues out and receive the Bread from Heaven.
She knelt gingerly with Sister Agnes to her right and Sister Margaret to her left, two nuns almost as old as she was, fellow veterans in the straight and narrow of the religious life, emergency personnel in case things went North like they often did. When Father Busingye came to her finally and placed the wafer on her tongue she melted into oblivion. She regained just enough consciousness to hear Father Busingye whisper roughly and sternly to the two nuns on either side of her, “Keep her down! She can levitate and float all she wants back in her cell!” Sister Katerina’s eyes opened lazily just enough for her to see that she was floating about three feet off the ground, with the two nuns grabbing at her habit, desperately trying to pull her back down. When they finally succeeded they guided her back to her pew, and sat very close to her in case something more was in store for the faithful that had gathered in the chapel that Sunday morning. That day their blushes were spared and the Lord permitted them some respite. For Sister Katerina, though, it was about thirty more minutes before the trance fully dissolved, the pleasure and delight and overwhelming sweetness dissipated, and she finally fully came to, utterly embarrassed and blushing to eternity. She would have hidden in her cell all the rest of the day if she hadn’t had that mission to complete in Bukoto.
“Sister Maria!” she called from the confines of her cell.
The young nun dashed down the hallway from her cell to the old nun’s, running past paintings of Saints and Martyrs and beautiful images of their Crucified, her hefty shoes making loud thuds in the echoey space.
“Yes, Mother?” she replied at the door, out of breath.
“Is the tuk-tuk still outside?”
“Yes, Mother. It seems to be prepared to wait all day!”
“Well then, let’s not keep the poor man waiting any longer.”
“Yes, Mother,” the novice replied.
The Somali man smiled widely when he saw the two nuns emerge from the convent entrance and walk towards him. He had a mouth-full of brown teeth and a large head of shaggy hair.
“Sister!” he exclaimed with unbridled glee. “I never thought you’d come out!”
“I had no choice in the matter, young man,” Sister Katerina said and smiled.
The man jumped out of the front seat and began to fidget around the back seats, beating the dust off the fake and torn leather and arranging imaginary objects. He was nearly beside himself that she would ride this day in his humble vehicle. Everybody knew the Saintly nun from Kyanja, but today she was his special passenger.
The young nun helped Sister Katerina into the back seat and got in next to her as the smiling driver started the engine and pulled the rickety vehicle away from the large, green and quiet compound of the convent of the Reformed Carmelites in Kyanja, turning towards Bukoto which seemed to await their small group with bated breath.
The man in Flat B Apartment 12 was pacing impatiently back and forth in the large bedroom. It was one of the posh flats and this was one of the more expensive apartments. He was young, in his mid-thirties, yellow and chubby. He looked well-off, wealthy even, and the class of clothes he donned and cologne he wore were matched perfectly by the lavish furniture and expensive technology in the sitting room, dining and kitchen. He occasionally looked at the bronze-and-gold-plated watch on his wrist as he paced distraughtly around the room. His face occasionally broke into a frown, a scowl, or a distant, empty look.
Seated in one corner of the room was the maid, scared and muted, looking downwards and past him to the object of his angst and panic. Below the pacing man was a crib with a child in it. Kneeling next to and holding the crib was a woman, his wife, whose condition was a far cry from the man’s. Her hair was shabby and unkempt and in tufts all over her head, as though she hadn’t taken a comb to it in several days, and she wore a long, sad, beige woolen sweater on top of her blue night gown. She had a handkerchief in her right hand with which she occasionally wiped tears from her face and mucus from her nose. The child in the crib was quiet and still. She was a two-year-old toddler and she was dying. There was a heart-monitor and a drip-line next to the crib, both attached to the fading little body.
“This is your fault!” the man yelled at the woman next to the crib. The woman recoiled towards the child, as though the words had physically struck her. She did not reply but only kept sobbing.
“Uncle, please…” the maid interjected.
“You, shut up!” the man growled at her, pointing menacingly.
“This would never have happened if you hadn’t insisted we take her to that lousy day-care!” the man roared on towards his wife. “I told you she had to go to an international-standard facility. But no, you had to have her next to Tracy’s child. Where is Tracy now? Where is your sister? I’ll tell you where: she’s at home feeding her daughter yoghurt and cornflakes while mine is dying under my very roof!” The man reached for a nearby table with papers on top of it and swept everything to the ground with one livid swing of his cufflinked arm.
“How would I have known her immune system was like this?” the woman replied feebly and pleadingly in-between her hushed sobs.
“You should have listened to me, Susan. That’s all. You should have listened.” He breathed steadily, trying to calm himself down.
“Doctor Okoth told us not to argue in front of her, Patrick. It might make her worse.”
“Worse?” Patrick laughed incredulously. “How much worse could she possibly get? Well, I’ll tell you how much worse she’s going to get! She’s going to die and it’s all your fault!” he yelled again, angrily roaring out the last two words. Susan, defeated, merely turned back to her dying child and continued to weep.
“Where is your friend anyway?” Patrick continued. “You said she’d be here by one. It’s three thirty!”
Just at that moment the door-bell rang.
When the tuk-tuk arrived at the large, black and ornate wrought-iron gate of the New Bukoto Apartments Sister Katerina took a deep breath.
“Are you okay, Mother?” Sister Maria asked.
“Yes. It’s… It’s just that… there is a lot of doubt in this place. I can feel it from here.”
“Doubt?” the novice inquired.
“Thank you, Akiba,” Sister Katerina said to the beaming Somali man who was looking back at them.
“Don’t mention it, Sister,” the man replied jovially.
“We don’t have any money on us but…”
The man shushed her with a wave of his hand.
“Don’t insult me, Sister,” he said, “Giving you this ride is the best thing that ever happened to me. If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you a ride back to the convent when you’re done with Mr. and Mrs. Ekaget.”
“Why thank you so much, young man!” the old nun said. “Bless you!”
Sister Maria leapt out of the vehicle from her side and hurried to the other to help Sister Katerina out.
The old nun gingerly put one foot on the ground and then the other, looking every one of her eighty-two years, and when she was fully out of the vehicle, with Sister Maria holding one arm, the other hand clutched around the crucifix on her chest, she looked up at the looming apartment complex and sighed again. The askari opened wide the huge gate even before they had knocked on it and the two nuns entered the compound like two unsure conscripts stepping onto a battlefield.
The clearly-awed askari ushered them slowly up the stairs to Apartment B-12, knowing exactly why they had come and who they were going to see even before they told him. When they got to the front door of the apartment he rang the doorbell and thirty seconds later a dark, skinny young lady in simple clothing and slippers opened the door.
“Sister!” she exclaimed when her eyes fell on them, before covering her face with her rough hands and weeping with what seemed like relief.
“Allow me to go back down, Sister,” the askari said, almost bending over with humility.
“Of course, Peter. Don’t let us hold you up!” the old nun replied.
The askari sprinted back down as the two nuns stood at the entrance of B-12, the young nun confused by the weeping of the maid, the old nun waiting patiently to be let in.
“Betty!” a voice bellowed from beyond the entrance. “Who is it?”
The young woman quickly composed herself and called back, “It’s Sister Katende!” before gesturing for the two religious to enter the premises.
Sister Maria gingerly led the old nun inside, still holding onto her left arm, and as they passed the young woman who was waiting to shut the door after them the old nun said, “Betty, you will need a stronger heart than that if you are to survive convent life!” The young woman, bemused by this seemingly random statement, then ushered them past the posh grey sofas of the sitting room, the maroon Persian rug, the potted plants and the impossibly large flat screen that hinged on the wall. The dining room, which was opposite the foyer, to their right, was neat and stately with polished, mahogany dining chairs set around a neatly-covered grand table. There was a fridge behind the dining set with a basket of fruit at the top, as well as another fridge visible in the kitchen through the square opening in the wall that connected the two rooms.
“Wealth and a cold faith tend to be playground pals, Sister Maria,” the old nun said.
“But they called you for some reason, Mother,” the young nun replied. “Surely there is faith here.”
“Whatever faith dwells here, Sister,” the old nun said, “has been forced out of hiding by a series of unfortunate events. Sometimes disaster is the only remedy God has to remind men of His existence. A kind of shock therapy, if you like.”
The corridor was surprisingly dark as the maid Betty led them through but the door of the room at the end of it was open and though the curtains in that room were drawn there was still enough scant light from the outside afternoon to see clearly the well-dressed man in suspenders and shiny shoes and glittering watch that was looking intently at them.
The two nuns entered the room and the smell of medicine immediately accosted them. The room was a mess, with used tissue strewn all over, and filled and half-filled boxes and containers and bottles of food and drink lying every which way. The man stared at them but couldn’t speak, while the miserable-looking woman kneeling next to the crib, in her long and sad woolen sweater and tired blue nightgown turned and looked up at them when they entered, a lingering hope glimmering in her eyes.
“Sister Katende!” the woman exclaimed and got up. She threw her arms around the old nun and she too, like the maid Betty before her, began to weep. The old nun placed a wrinkled, tired hand on her back.
“There, there now,” the nun soothed, “It’s all going to be okay. I told you over the phone that you must trust the Lord!”
“Oh sister!” the woman cried, “Please help us! Please help her!”
“Sister Katende,” the man now spoke, reaching his hand out for a formal handshake. “I am glad you could make it. My wife has told me a lot about you.”
The old nun took his hand in both of hers. “Young man,” she said, “your heart is far away. Your doubt reeks from a mile off.”
The man withdrew his hand in confusion and offense and looked at the younger nun who blushed and said, “We are glad to come and see the two of you. A lovely young couple you are!”
The old nun walked slowly over to the crib and looked down at the unconscious toddler lying within it. She grabbed onto the edge of the crib and began to descend painfully to her knees. The young nun rushed to her aid. She held onto her until she had established herself firmly on the cold floor in a kneeling position.
“Thank you, Sister,” she said to the young nun.
She looked again at the child in the crib and brought her old and wrinkled hand to gently feel the girl’s curly hair. “Such a beautiful thing,” she said absent-mindedly. She then turned to the woman and said, “My daughter, why don’t you let this angel rest? The Lord has been kind enough to bless you for two years with the joy she has brought you both, now He wants to take His flower back and we should let Him.”
The woman collapsed to her knees next to the old nun and began to weep again. “Oh Sister!” she pleaded, “Is there nothing you can do?”
“My child,” the old nun replied, “You told me once that you would always accept God’s will in all things. Will you refuse Him now?”
The old nun took the crying woman into her bosom and after a while raised her face to look into hers.
“Child,” she said, “Do you accept God’s will for you and your husband, even though it means temporary pain and loss for now?”
Tears filled up in the woman’s eyes again as she gazed at the nun, before her face melted into submission and she nodded her head in surrender, falling once more into the old nun’s bosom and crying inconsolably. She cried hard and loud, the wails of one who had finally accepted her daughter’s fate and let her go.
She was still shaking violently in the old nun’s chest when the man’s bellow broke the gloom that hung over the room.
The anger and finality in the shout were so sharp and authoritative they cut through the mood like a hot knife through ghee.
The woman removed her tear-stained face from the nun’s habit and looked up at the man.
“No!” the man shouted again with aggressive finality.
“Patrick…” the woman said weakly.
“I said no! This is not why we called you here! Susan said you would help us! Is this how you intend to do it? To tell me I must let my daughter die?”
“Sir, please,” the young nun tried to interject, nervously fingering the beads of her rosary.
“This is why you came?” the man continued, turning to the young nun, “To help us watch our daughter die?”
“Uncle, please,” the maid tried to soothe him.
“I will not – you listen to me real good now – I will not stand here and sing hymns to send my daughter’s soul to some beyond!”
“Patrick!” the woman screamed now. “Stop it! Okay? Stop this! You think you’re the only one hurt by Lilly’s sickness? You think you’re the only one who cares if she gets well or not? Why do you always want to act like a juvenile?”
The man’s eyes narrowed to slits in anger and his tone lowered to a livid, frightful baritone. He pointed gravely at the woman. “You listen here, Susan…”
“Enough!” the old nun interjected. “Will your marriage also depart with this girl’s soul? If my Lord had told me I would witness the beginnings of a separation in this place I never would have come!”
She sighed and looked again at the child.
“I will ask of Him if He will condescend to listen to you,” she said, speaking to the man but looking down at the child. “I only ask that whatever He decides be accepted as final with no complaints.”
The woman wiped her nose with her wrinkled handkerchief and nodded. “I…” the man began but the woman flung herself into his arms and looked plaintively into his eyes.
“Patrick,” she said with a pleading that disarmed him, “Please, I beg you.”
The man bit his tongue, shut his eyes roughly and began to whimper in pain, large blobs of tears dropping down his face. He, too, had surrendered.
The old nun sighed deeply and wrapped her left hand around the crucifix on her chest. She made the sign of the Cross with her right, closed her eyes and seemed to vanish into herself. She retreated into the far reaches of her mind, into the deep and secret place, to that secret room where her Bridegroom awaited her with open arms. She fell into His bosom and wept. When she was done she looked up into His eyes and melted with emotion, overcome by His beauty and overwhelmed by the warmth of His embrace. She spoke to Him tenderly, like a lover whispering into the ear of her Muse, and what she spoke loudly in her mind and in her heart came out of her physical mouth as the whisper of a prayer, subtle but audible enough that Betty, the maid, wrote it down later word for word and would look at it every night before bed from that day onwards, until the day, six months later, that she left the Ekaget residence to become the newest novice at the Reformed Carmelite convent in Kyanja.
The words Betty wrote down were as follows:
I want to thank You, first, for Who You are.
I want to thank You, also, for deigning to listen to the words of a worm.
Who has heard it said that a Majesty such as Yours could deign to pay heed to the filth coming from the mouth of one as wicked as I?
And to whom will I tell this story, who will believe it, that in rags and dirt I approached my Love, and even in my rottenness He embraced and kissed me?
Far be it from You to do such a thing, and yet I must speak to You, oh my Christ, if You would permit me. I must kneel and beg at Your feet on behalf on these who entreat You to take pity. If my tears do not mean anything to You, then I offer You Your own tears shed for me in that Garden the night You sealed our love in Your blood.
And yet, let not mine but Your will be done. Amen.
The nun kept on mumbling and whispering words but by this time it had long been accomplished. The child had at first began to stir and cough, then she had opened her eyes and looked about her before sitting up and tugging at the cannula in her arm. Her parents, Betty and the young nun were wide-mouthed as they watched on, but when the child cried “Mummy!” the thick air of gloom and doubt and disbelief and awe was cut through and the woman shouted “Lilly!” and ran to embrace her living child, with Betty screaming ecstatically and Patrick looking on like a frozen image.
Susan hugged Lilly fiercely and cried even harder, waves of relief undulating through her and releasing emotions that had been pent-up for the past four months. She lifted her from the crib and this motion woke Patrick up to the reality of what had happened and he walked over and threw his arms around them both, breaking into his own weeping release of fear and guilt…and relief.
The maid soon joined and threw her arms around the lot of them, crying and skipping in delight. The young nun stayed back, thumbing her rosary, still overwhelmed by what she had just seen. It was the mumbling of Sister Katende that snapped her back into reality, and she quickly ran over to her when she noticed that the old nun was slowly but perceptibly levitating off the floor, hovering a few inches above it.
She threw her arms around the old nun in an attempt to keep her from making any further headway towards the ceiling as well as to snap her out of her rapture. The old nun slowly opened her eyes and looked at the young nun at her side. She smiled an old smile.
“Sister Maria Karungi,” she said with a moving fondness, as though she was reminding herself of an old friend’s name.
“Yes, Mother,” the young nun said, tears piercing her eyes. “Look,” she said, pointing at the family caught in an unending embrace. “Look, Mother. She’s alright. The little girl, she’s going to be alright!”
“The light will shine again in this bedroom,” the old nun said, “and the sun will shine again on this house.”
As if on cue, Betty ran to the windows and drew back all the curtains, letting in a supreme wash of golden yellow sunlight. The room was bright and glowing, and the three figures next to the crib embraced forever – now laughing, now weeping, now singing.
The girl was eating strawberry ice-cream on her father’s lap in the sitting room when the nuns got up to leave. The whole family rose to see them off. The little party moved slowly down the stairs to the waiting tuk-tuk at the old nun’s pace. When the askari saw the girl he exclaimed in Swahili “Mama na baba!” and put his arms on top of his head for an age before Patrick, laughing, asked him to open the gate.
As the old nun was being helped into the backseat of the tuk-tuk by Akiba and the young nun she turned back, looked at the maid and smiled. “See you soon, Betty!” she said. The tuk-tuk vibrated into life and as it drove slowly away from the gate Sister Katende looked out to the man with the child and the woman by his side, made a fist and said “Courage!” as the four of them all waved back and slowly receded into the distance.
In the tuk-tuk Sister Maria looked at the old nun for a while before gathering the bravery to ask.
“Mother?” she said.
“Yes?” the old nun replied.
“What…what exactly happens…what exactly happens when you…you know…when you pray?”
The old nun smiled.
“I remember,” she said, looking out at the passing landscape: first a wide vista of green and grassy land, then eventually an endless queue of shops and arcades and MTN and DSTv adverts and cars and pedestrians.
“I remember to this day my first Holy Communion. It was in Christ the King Church; a beautiful Latin Mass, glorious organ music and Gregorian chant from the choir. I had been dressed up as a bride, as had all the girls. We lined up and knelt one at a time. My grandmother had told me, ‘Katie, don’t say too much to Him. Just love, okay? Love Him, that’s all He needs.’
So when my turn came I simply closed my eyes, opened my mouth, stuck out my tongue and loved. That’s all I did. That was the first time I saw Him. And from that day on everything made sense to me, the whole world made sense.”
The young nun had not understood any of this, but she was scared of pressing the issue so she let it go and said, “I can’t wait to see the other novices and tell them what happened today!”
But the old nun was not listening anymore, she was staring out at the passing people and shops and cars and stores, lost in her mind, travelled back in time to that day that she first encountered The Man.
“Love Him,” she whispered into the air. “That’s all He needs.”
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