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Sister Mary Agatha has gone missing.

By Sofia Genco-Billington

Sister Mary Agatha has gone missing.

When the police arrive leaning against their cars, killing the mosquitos, I tell them Sister Mary Agatha has gone missing. She is truly and deeply lost, against all St. Antony’s means of finding. I tell everyone who asks, all of the sisters swarming me like busy pilgrims. Sister Mary Agatha has gone missing. Sister Mary Agatha has gone missing. I count the times I say it so I can tell Father Peter when I next have confession. Forgive me father for I have sinned, fifteen times to be exact.

Sister Mary Agatha was my responsibility. Of course there was the medicated faith. The shiny pretty prayers all oblong in orange bottles. The rattling rosary she never saw. But I needed God in dosages and when I needed the most, they gave her to me. The highest dosage of God man could buy. Her hands where Passion relics and knew Jesus’ feet from nail to heel. She had the Old Testament crumpled up and pushed into every wrinkle. Her cruelty was her servitude. When Sister Camilla told her why I was there at all, why I had appeared in the middle of a summer night in the back of my mother’s car, she wouldn’t let me help her for nearly six weeks. When she finally decided on forgiveness, she kissed my knuckles and told me to keep them clean, flashing that writhing scar in the centre of her hand, Pontious palms to the sky.

Sister Mary Agatha didn’t smell like body. She always smelt of wet walls, mildew, mould. I would push her wheelchair into the cloister garden and sit still for hours while she pretended to be alone. I think those were the only times she enjoyed my presence. Each evening, sick from heat, I’d lift her into the bath, her fingers digging into the meat of my hands. Then she’d pat the marks better, and my white bloodless patches would colour again.

Sister Mary Agatha showed me things. I slept in a state of temporary permanence, in a small bed in the corner of her room. She would bolt upright in the night, her head a corona of shocking white hair, her expression misty.

Sister Mary Agatha showed me martyrs in the courtyard. Her gnarly fingers outlining St. Agnes and her young blue eyes staring up into the moon light, crickets purring sweet harmonies with the meek bleat of her lamb. After the last hoof clicks and heel scuffs softened into the night, she’d turn to me.

‘Say your prayers aloud till I sleep again.’

And if I forgot where I was, or accidentally doubled an Our Father, she’d notice.

‘Start again.’

So I would, thinking all the time of the figures in the courtyard. You can’t pick to be a martyr. I did check.

Sister Mary Agatha’s Bible had bite marks on its cover. She hated the priests behind their backs and eyed them coldly. I think inside she wanted to be them, her status as divine conduit a mere radio wave in comparison to their operator line to heaven. Nobody believed me when I told them I saw Saints crackle in the courtyard once a week, how I felt the white heat of the pyre on my cheeks or the way the scraping of armour against cobble (the young ones never pick up their feet, Joan of Arc is flatfooted) would send tremors out in the night air. In the morning I would collect the relics and put them in Sister Mary Agatha’s box. The box that sank so efficiently in the lake. Saints are quiet, and the more stories I told, the longer my care of her would last.

Sister Mary Agatha was a punishment who liked to scratch and claw at eyeballs. They say cats know when people will die, but saints are far more precise, and women do not eat from the baskets of Christ and die silently. I fastened the buttons on her coat and put a blanket over her knees.

‘Take me outside Sister Mary.’

She always did hate our sharing of our name. Every Mother has a Magdalen. I was just her namesake with the prostitute rumour.

I was instructed to leave her in the courtyard and wait in the cloisters. I pressed my hand against the lead-lined windows and was left with a criss-cross of burn marks to show for it. Sister Mary Agatha burnt like a pile of bone-dry leaves. A grand whoosh of heat that I felt in the backs of my eyeballs and smelt on the hairs of my arms. The pile of ash left was discrete and unobtrusive to the flowerbeds. I threw the relics in the lake, and they vanished before hitting the surface. I figured she would want nobody to hold them but her.

I am waiting to go. I am waiting for Sister Mary Agatha each day as my palm heals from its cross shaped branding. At night, I watch her eyes in the courtyard, milky white visitations pushed back deep in her face. She stands there and shows me her palm. Then she smiles. And disappears.

The sisters tell me they don’t know her. That I called the police myself. That I needed to go back to bed.

Forgive me Father, for I gambled Sister Mary Agatha in a game against saints.

Luigi Busi, Amore e Voto, 1860-73, lithography on paper, H. 171 mm x W. 231 mm,

Image courtesy of The British Museum.


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