The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter’s

One by one, her classmates entered their pews. A baby cried. The eighth grade girls rustled their music, ready to start their song to Mary, and Clare shivered inside herself. She was not pure, not fit. And, too, she lacked faith. In her pride, she had seen Father Etienne as a man instead of a priest.

Did she know this yet?  Not when she genuflected in front of the altar railing and thought of herself inside the confessional kneeling on her dress so it tugged, and Father sliding the screen, his face silhouetted as she hurried into her confession: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I was disrepectful to my parents, I fought with my brother four times, I pulled a cat’s tail . . . and then the long moment while she thought darkly and Father asked not once, but twice, if there was anything more. Clare took a breath and squeezed her eyes shut tight and then opened them. I told a lie, she said, and then they were both waiting as though Father knew there was something else she should say. Clare listened to the blackness and their breathing between them and wondered if she could add it was a lie to a boy. She hesitated, hoping Father would ask again if there was something more, but he didn’t. Instead, he asked if she had any questions. Clare could see the outline of his hand as it moved. She heard the back of his fingers rolling lightly against the wood with a sound like a short glissando, and she thought of his cigarettes and the smoke that had risen above his hand on the shovel on her very first day at St. Francis. She pictured his face, so close through the screen, and the morning when he’d laughed because she’d run home in the early dark.

No, she hadn’t known then when she answered No, Father, and she didn’t know now as she rose from her genuflection and the girls broke into their song, and Father Etienne and Jeff Grauer and the other acolyte turned to face Mary’s altar. Clare’s shoe caught on her hem as she started up the ladder. She tipped a little, then righted herself, still clutching the wreath. Mary was porcelain-still. There were no glycerine tears. No streaks of blood. Clare balanced her leg against the ladder side and went farther up to the last step. She reached for the statue. She crowned Mary and, as she backed down the steps, the wreath slipped cock-eyed across Mary’s brow.

And even then she still didn’t know, for she was only a child. She was Clare McHenry—Clare McHenry who’d made a bad confession, Clare McHenry who believed she’d not prayed enough for her mother’s soul and who’d crowned Mary so the wreath sat at a rakish tilt like the hat of a sailor on Wharf Street in Hanbury. In the long unfolding of the Mass, Clare stared at that crooked wreath.

Outside afterwards, people gathered as though there’d been a wedding. The first grade had made May baskets and they scattered flowers. Boys ran on the grass, and the nuns were smiling, holding their veils in the wind. Clare tried pushing the heels of her shoes off her new blisters. She spotted her mother. She saw her at the edge of the crowd, the woman in the movies waiting at the station while the train pulls out and the face she loves begins to disappear. Years later, Clare identified that expression and knew how premature and forced their early distancing had been. But in the breezy day, with her heart so desperate, Clare looked for Sister Immaculata who had all the answers. In the sea of nodding veils, she wanted a nun like the nuns on the roof of St. Peter’s.

Someone not yet heaven sent, but not really earthbound.

Somebody selling for God.

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