Incident at St. Laurita’s
by Kochava Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The newly named Sister Amelia was assigned a small cell in the interior of the convent. Sparsely furnished with a bed, desk, chair and washbasin, it had red adobe walls inscribed with the sacred spiral on three walls and the back of the wooden door.
Sister Carlita, a woman near to Sister Amelia’s age with the facial features of both indigenous Mexican and black ancestors, showed Sister Amelia the washroom, lined with washbasins, private bathing and toilet chambers, and a feature many would find luxurious for a convent: a steam room.
Sister Carlita explained in a light soprano voice that the steam rooms were an integral part of the convent life, places in which sisters could gather or go individually to inhale herbal steam and pray, heal, or seek visions. Sister Carlita returned the new woman to her cell to dress, saying that the novice mistress would summon her for a full orientation shortly.
On her bed, Sister Ameila unrolled her new uniform: a long, green gown with a rust over-apron, the colors symbolizing the elements of the earth; a sleeveless undershirt and loose drawers that came to her knees; and a turban a shade lighter than the gown. She washed her hands and face in the basin and dried them on the cloth provided.
She shook out her hair, running her hands through its thick strands. She didn’t miss the constant combing and application of slick potions to make it behave more like that of her white counterparts in San Lazare. She removed her travel tress, unbuttoning the high neck and wrists first. She rolled it down, and then reached to unhook the skirts from where they were attached above her knees with brass snaps.
The snaps were her own invention: small straps of fabric that laced through tiny copper eyes. There were five such sets of snaps and eyes down to her ankles, designed to prevent her skirt from ever accidentally rising. Her boots had similar tethering devices. Sister Amelia’s legs were copper from the thigh down.
Still standing, she removed her shift and utilitarian corset, a far cry from the damask and embroidered silk and satin undergarments of her days of displaying herself to the various men — judges, gamblers, rangers, dancers, soldiers — of her now past life. She rolled the undergarments with her dress, and sat on the bed.
Working with a speed that came from years of practice, she unfastened her legs from her thighs, removing a small key from the side of each leg and using it to unlock bolts on each side of her legs. She spun sets of gears just above the inside and outside of each knee and released two bayonet socketed bars, and the legs slid off.
She rubbed the ends of her thighs briefly and adjusted the specially-made stocking-silk caps that covered them. Sister Amelia removed the boots at the ends of her legs and then put on her new sandals on each foot, which had been convincingly painted to give her individual toes and to match her skin.
She pulled on her new, loose, soft habit and adjusted the turban to cover her hair, then reattached her legs. She lay back on her bed and had rested a quarter of an hour when the summons from the novice mistress arrived.
The novice mistress was younger than Sister Amelia had expected. Sister Margaret was a petite white woman barely out of her teens. She had joined St. Laurita’s when she was only sixteen and had never left the convent’s lands since.
Her family had pledged her to the convent after a team of St. Laurita’s sisters in Saltillo had saved her older sister, who had married a mine owner there, from bandits. Sister Margaret’s own trip to the convent had been far worse.
Her family’s coach, traveling by itself and not part of a convoy or automated train, had attracted the attention of both bandits and the creatures of a great inland lake to which her driver, foolishly, had passed close by on the way.
During an overnight stop, three bandits and two creatures approached the carriage almost at the same time from opposite directions. Sister Margaret’s mother, two younger brothers, and two family retainers lay buried in the nearest town’s cemetery. The bandits were last seen being dragged into the lake.
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Two weeks later, Sister Margaret had taken permanent vows and her father and the surviving bodyguard had returned home by private airship. Her father swiftly drank himself to death, and the bodyguard retired to a sanatorium to recover his health.
Sister Margaret told this sad story to Sister Amelia as they toured the convent complex. Sister Margaret issued Sister Amelia her own basic set of keys and a passcode to the cellar’s hidden safe cell, a large, well-concealed room designed to protect the sisters in case of a raid or other calamity.
Sister Amelia asked about the dangers of the area. She had chosen St. Laurita’s in part because she assumed it to be safe in its desert fastness. Convents of the All-Mother were known to be poor but well-defended, generally discouraging thieves, rapists, and others with a criminal or violent bent.
St. Laurita’s was not too far from a lake, but maps indicated it was small and highly unlikely to be a habitat for the creatures that had terrorized many waterside communities before people started moving inland. The creatures were widely assumed by the sisters to be natural sea animals contaminated by poisons or actions made by men.
Others held different ideas: that the sea creatures were embodiments of the evil nemesis of the Unnatural Man; that they had seeped into the seas through cracks in the ocean floors from an underworld within the earth; that they had come from distant stars; that they were the monstrous reincarnations of executed criminals, “fallen women,” and children sacrificed by desert cults.
Sister Margaret and her sister brothel-workers had once tried to think of themselves as creatures from the deep, and they had laughed over the idea. Now mention of the creatures brought only a firm set to her lips.
Sister Margaret told Sister Amelia that indeed the convent was safe, but that all houses serving the All-Mother were heavily protected and possessed of a small armory in addition to the safe room, just in case of trouble. Indeed, she said, almost embarrassed to mention it, Sister Amelia would need to turn over any weapons she had with her to the communal trove.
Sister Amelia yielded up two sets of dueling pistols and a clockwork repeating stiletto but kept silent about the single-shot pistol and scimitar knife locked into her legs. Sister Margaret took the proffered weapons and said that they would be kept in the armory and that Sister Amelia could practice with them any time. She added that skinwalkers — men and women transformed into animal-like beings — had been once rumored to live in the desert as well but, she said uncertainly, no one had seen them in a long time.
Sister Amelia sighed slightly and said nothing.
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Copyright © 2015 by Kochava Greene