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Celestial Voices (historical)

Written by Siri Paulson

 

1.


The fountain in the courtyard still trickles, though the water is green and fouled and the courtyard is littered with shards of clay roof tiles. The gate to the interior of the convent hangs open; there is no-one to stop me from entering. This time, I can walk under the archway as I please, my steps careful as I place my cane on the broken cobblestones.

This time, there is no singing.


2.


I was born outside a little village in the countryside. You wouldn't know the name, for it no longer exists.

The happiest day of my life was in my sixth year -- my name-day, the feast of Saint Teresa. I had never been farther than the village before, or the neighbouring vineyards where I would beg to be allowed to stomp the grapes until my feet turned purple. It wasn't for my sake that we went, all eight of us piling into the rickety cart. It was for Giovanni, my next-oldest brother, his legs withered and useless. From polio, I suppose, although I didn't know then and never had a chance to ask later. The nuns were rumoured to work miracles. My mother, her hair and face graying after eight living and six dead children, hadn't wanted to go. It was my father who said, "If there is a chance..."

The road wound through the hills, an unimaginably long journey. I didn't know the world stretched so far. My father drove from early in the morning until after midday, and still more hills rose beyond, lined with vineyards.

The singing of the nuns was famous in the countryside around, and they only let people into the outer courtyard to listen on feast days. The convent teemed with people, as if the whole of my village, everyone I knew, had crammed into one small space. They were lame or blind or trembling with age or coughing, and worst of all, they were strangers. My father led the way into the crowd, bearing Giovanni in his arms. I followed, tucked close behind his broad back.

My father pushed his way around the fountain and nearly to the gate, its iron bars locked tight. When I turned around, I couldn't see my mother or older siblings anywhere. They were lost somewhere in the crush of the crowd, everyone shoving towards us. So many people, their bodies pressing in on us until, young as I was, I began to be afraid of dying.

Then the singing began.

The nuns' voices twined around one another in intricate, ever-changing harmonies, their tones pure and clean as the sky. They sang in Latin, of course, like the priest at home, yet nothing like his droning monotone or like my mother's coarse-voiced, tuneless lullabies, either. Listening so hard I barely breathed, I found the melody, then the high voices that soared above it, the warm, rich tones that added a second harmony below, and the lowest women's voices that pulsed like a heartbeat under all the rest. Among them I could pick out a few individual singers, but their voices blended together in the sweetest sound I had ever known. My whole body tingled with the music.

"My God," my father murmured beside me, but I barely heard him. I strained at the gate, trying to see -- as if that would help me hear better -- but the covered passageway beyond led only to a cross-passage, revealing nothing.

When it ended, I felt a pain in my chest, an emptiness that I had never known was there, and yet I knew it had been, all along. The singing had filled it.

I cried and threw myself at the gate, my hands pulling at the cold iron bars. I wanted nothing more to enter the gate and shut out the world and be a nun for the rest of my days.

Another tone rose above the crowd: not awe now, but fear. "Let me through," a woman was sobbing. "Let my daughter through. I could not get here in time, she was too ill to come faster. See how feverish she is. She must have a miracle." But over her voice rose others, all shouting the same word: Plague.

We fled, the crowd scattering, but not fast enough.


3.


Those days were evil. My thoughts flinch from them, even now.

Giovanni first. Then my oldest sister. Then my mother. Then my father. Then...

The whole village empty, doors hanging open and swinging in the wind, only a few animals wandering loose. Food was in the houses, but so were things I did not want to see. I ate unripe grapes until I was sick, huddled in the cow-byre when it rained. Grass grew over the road through the village.

At night I could see the lights of other villages, so far away they seemed to belong to another world, another time. Sometimes then I sang to myself, just little crooning noises, to keep from being afraid. There were no lights left in my village.


4.


When the peddler asked me where my parents were, I pointed at the house. He tried to take my hand and pull me toward it. I fought, desperate not to see. He didn't understand until he finally gave up and walked alone to look inside.

I was just old enough to remember the name of my mother's sister, even though she lived several towns away and I'd only met her once. Sometimes I wonder how things would have been different if I had not remembered.

My aunt had no love to spare for an orphan. No patience for my everlasting questions about the nuns who sang so beautifully. She had never heard of them, or said she hadn't.

I used to ask random strangers, anyone who looked as if they might be from out of town. Have you heard...? Nobody had. My aunt found out and told me to hold my tongue and stop bothering people. Only later did I realize that of course, anyone who might have known was dead.

Sometimes, out behind my aunt's house in the washing shed when I thought nobody could hear me, I still sang to myself. Tried with all my might to remember how they had sounded that day. Their voices, which had been so clear in my head when I was alone in the village, began to fade.


5.


On my wedding day, I was seventeen, my husband thirty. He was a good man, a hard worker. I'd been glad to leave my aunt when he offered. Only once, I suggested we might move away from his farm outside of town, the farm that never gave enough food. We might pack our belongings into a cart and drive past the spot where a village had once been. Plenty of rich vine-lands for the taking, and I'd heard there was a convent where we might worship...

I'd hurt him, suggesting that he should leave the farm his father and grandfather had worked. The blows I could endure -- it wasn't the first time, nor the last -- but when he shoved me, I fell badly and my leg flared into pain. The bruises faded, but I always walked with a limp. He was sorry for it and carved me a cane, which I accepted. After that, I never let him hear me sing.

But I did sing still, to all our five children. It quieted them when they cried from hunger. Many nights I sat up, rocking a little one with an empty belly, singing with the nuns whose voices still faintly echoed in my head. I sang two babies to their final rest, my soft voice the last thing they ever heard.


6.


I walked into town one warm autumn day, clutching the coins I'd managed to scrape together. My Giovanni was getting married, and I was determined to make a new lace veil to wear to the wedding, to make him proud.

The streets were quieter than usual, lacking their market-day bustle. I thought little of it until I reached the town square. Outside the home of my Giovanni's wife-to-be, a small crowd had gathered, standing well back. The noise of the crowd, though quiet, was a murmur of unease such as I'd only heard once before in my life.

My coin-purse fell from my hands. "What is it?" I called out, to anyone, to no-one. "Is it..." The word stuck in my throat. I couldn't ask.

The door of the house opened and the doctor came out, wearing a beaked mask that made him look like a monster. He said the word. There was a roaring in my ears and I couldn't hear it, but I knew what he had said.

I found myself running as fast as my lame leg would take me, as if I could outrun the word, but it passed from person to person faster than I could go. Or maybe I had waited to hear the rest of the news. I can't remember now. The entire family in that house was ill, the bride already dead. The family, with whom my own children and husband and I had shared a celebratory meal only the night before.

I arrived home in time to nurse them all to their deaths, one by one. My husband, the strong and hearty, went first. My Giovanni was the last. He moaned in his fever, asking for a lullaby as if he were still small. He had always loved my singing best. I tried, for him I tried, but my voice would not come and I sat mute while his beautiful eyes -- so like his namesake's -- closed for the last time.


7.


How did I come here, to this quiet courtyard and the rustle of dry leaves at my feet? How did I find it at last? I can't remember. Did I walk or beg a ride from a cart-driver? Did I ask the strangers I met? Was anyone kind to me, the old widow in black? How long have I been wandering -- days, years -- and why does it not bother me that I can't remember? Did anyone bury my dead, or do they lie in the farmhouse still, their silence too frightening and their plague-ridden bodies too gruesome for me to dare go in after the food I know is there?

But I am not at the farmhouse now, no peddler is coming to take me away. I am an old woman, older than my aunt was when the knock at her door revealed a wild little orphan girl, another mouth to feed. There are no dead here.

Are there?

The gate swings to and fro behind me in the wind as I feel my way down the dark passageway into the heart of the convent. I look into each cell door, hobbling from room to room. Some are empty, stripped bare. In others, icons still stand in their niches, rotting blankets still cover the beds. I push open the last door -- see a flash of black -- and jump back against the wall. When my pounding heart slows, I push at the door again, more cautiously. An empty habit hangs neatly on one wall. I find the dining hall, the kitchen, bowls stacked on the shelves, benches pushed away from the tables as if the nuns have just risen.

What am I searching for? The convent is long abandoned, no welcome for me here. Even if it weren't, what could I find here that would be worth the search? Nothing could replace the two lost Giovannis, the others I have loved. The years I could have had in their choir. The other life I might have known.

I come to the double door at the end of the passageway.

This door is heavy, reluctant to move. Or is it that I have grown weaker? I cannot remember the last time I ate. I lean against the door with my bird-body. At last, the hinges creaking, it swings open.


8.


A rainbow of light streams into the chapel. Perhaps the ceiling is cracked, the whitewash mottled with mould, but I don't notice. I can almost see them here, rows of nuns filling the pews, their faces uplifted, mouths open in a song that is a prayer. Surely, if I strain, I can almost hear them singing...

I cannot. I can't remember how they sounded, those voices that drew people from far and wide to hear them. I held onto their memory for so long, but now I've lost them. It's been too long, too hard a road.

But I sang for years. Surely, if I try...

I open my mouth, try to push sound out from between my sunken lips. Only a wheeze escapes, only a moan. My heart is too weary. I am the last person living who heard them, and now I stand where they stood, and they are gone.

I sink down at the foot of the cross before the empty pews. One of the panels in the stained-glass window is broken, and clear, warm sunlight lies across my lap. Below it, my knees are coloured yellow, my ankles purple.

My ankles have been purple before. When? Not when my husband beat me -- only my arms and back and the thigh on my broken leg, that once. Ah, I have it. When I was a little girl, before the plague, stomping the grapes until my feet and legs were dyed purple almost to the knees. I thought it was the best thing in the world and I would laugh and laugh and laugh.

I have not known such joy since. But there has been happiness. Even in the darkest times, I have found happiness when I sing. The memory of the nuns' music has sustained me.

Crooning to myself in the darkness of an empty village. Singing to ease the ache in my young arms and make the work behind my aunt's house go faster. Rocking my children with lullabies filling their ears. Trying to sing as my family slipped away, again.

Somewhere inside me is the six-year-old I was, the joy all gone now. She is curled deep in my heart, waiting to be comforted.

My eyes drift closed. Almost without noticing, I begin to hum and then to sing. My voice echoes off the stone walls of the chapel. Latin phrases, long forgotten, rise easily to my lips. The sound rolls out of me, my voice rich as it has never been before, carrying all the songs I have sung over the years, the nuns' songs, transmuted into something that is all my own. I rise to my feet and my chest swells, my whole body vibrating with the power of the music I am making.

When I finish, the silence around me is complete. It is broken by a scuffling noise from beyond the stained-glass window. I stride forward to look through the broken panel.

Outside, in the courtyard, a small group of children has gathered. In the forefront stands a little girl, her clothes in tatters but her face rapt as she lifts it to the window.

Perhaps I have been a part of the choir, after all.