A Short Story by Alice McDermott

Illuminations
Paul Hoecker, 1897 / Wikimedia

On her first afternoon at the sanatorium upstate, Sister Illuminata left the porch where the patients were lined up like bolts of linen and wandered through the wings of the cottage. She wanted only solitude. She had already endured the crowded crossing in steerage, the filth and the sickness. She had endured the constant entreaties from every poor Catholic on board, and had brushed from her veil and from the hem of her skirt the traces of spit that had been directed at her from those who were not. She stood in the knocking crowds on Ellis Island, elbow to elbow. And although her habit earned her only a cursory stethoscope to her lungs—through her bib, no less—from a harried and blushing doctor, she’d had barely a night alone in her convent room when Dr. Hannigan, less afraid and more thorough than the government doctor had been, sent her to the sanatorium.  

When a nurse there—a Sister of Mercy herself—tried to stop her from going off alone, Sister Illuminata said, lying, that it was a stipulation of her own order that she say her afternoon Office on her feet. She wouldn’t be long.

So it was that she found herself drawn by the luxury of silence to a section of the cottage that was not currently in use—the back of the house, where a winter sunroom she had seen from the drive had now, in midsummer, been given over to storage. Her beads in her hand, she turned from the darkened hallway into the bright space. The air here was hazy, full of dust motes and vague sunbeams, stiflingly hot. There were bed frames and wicker chaises piled haphazardly. A green-and-white linoleum floor that was glazed with sunlight. The dull silence was exactly what she had sought. But then a human sound disturbed it: a long sigh that rippled across the stifling air like breath on water. 

In an instant, her eyes found them: a man and a woman, half kneeling, half crouching. They were pressed together in a corner of the hot room, pressed up against each other, behind an iron bedstead that seemed to enclose them. Both had slipped their white robes from their shoulders. Both moved with the same slow, stuttering rhythm. Sister could see the woman’s bare throat, corded and straining, the white flesh of her breasts and the brown of her nipples. She could see the man’s shoulder blades, the short bones of his spine as they pressed themselves against the paper-thin skin. He rose up over her, she arched herself toward him. He was an old man, white hair on the back of his head, across his shoulders, and all along his skeletal arms. 

Briefly, Sister thought there was something angelic about their pale struggle, the winged shoulder blades, the tangled bodies, the soft folds of their white robes, and the dusty, streaming sunlight. But then she saw how their mouths were wide-open, black and straining. Opened helplessly as if in sudden reflex—as if to expel the short, ragged breaths they were taking. Precious breaths in this place.

Sister thought there was something angelic about their pale struggle, the winged shoulder blades, the tangled bodies

Sister Illuminata saw them for only a moment before she turned away. There is a hunger, she thought.

The woman was a young mother from a wealthy family—Sister Illuminata’s own age. She died within the month. The old man was a doctor from Syracuse, New York, who went home with his family the same week Sister Illuminata returned to the convent—both of them, he said, with lungs forever scarred by their ordeal.

There is a hunger. It was a lesson she had learned and then forgotten across the years she had labored in the convent laundry. But she remembered it again when Sally returned from Chicago and Sister Lucy explained to a small coterie of the nuns: Illuminata and Jeanne, Sister Eugenia and old Sister Miriam, what the girl had discovered.

They were in what the Sisters humbly called the refectory; it was, in fact, the rich man’s former drawing room. It was elegant still, high-ceilinged, paneled, with the same thick silk draperies he had paid for. It was where the Sisters took their simple meals, but it was also the site for card parties and ladies’ teas, Christmas gatherings for the neighborhood poor, visits from the bishop. A room the nuns used to impress both the indigent and the hoi polloi. 

The small bulbs in the chandelier above the polished table where the nuns now sat reflected prettily in the dark wood, like starlight on a pond. As Sister Lucy spoke about the arrangements she had made to remove Sally from the scene of her mother’s “indiscretion,” Sister Illuminata recalled that she had seen such a pond, such dancing starlight, at the sanatorium upstate. She recalled the pond, the bracing cold night, the tall black pines in the distant darkness, and the flavor of pine on the air. She became aware once more of the ache in her scarred lungs. She recalled the old doctor.

She remembered the lesson she had learned on her first afternoon at the sanatorium, had learned but forgotten: There is a hunger.

 

This story is excerpted from The Ninth Hour, which will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in September 2017.

Published in the July 7, 2017 issue: 
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Alice McDermott is the author of six novels, including Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1998, and After This, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

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