Incident at St. Laurita’s
by Kochava Greene
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
In the following months, Sister Amelia cleaned the convent and learned to cook, particularly delighting in cooking cactus and scorpion, and tended the garden of succulents and lizards. She sometimes felt restless, but the feeling was usually put aside by throwing herself into new work and learning.
Twice a week the women took practice at martial arts; once a week they received messages from the telegraph operator in the nearest town; and once a month they held a service to celebrate the moon.
Every several weeks, a traveler or two might stop by to pass the night in St. Laurita’s guesthouse, bringing news of Texas and other nearby countries: Louisiana, Carolina, and vast Columbia, now grown to some 32 counties and territories. Often travelers brought gifts: a songbird, tools, books, and, on one occasion, a small grey burro, who was immediately dubbed Sister Brayana.
Sister Amelia became fond of the little equine, prettying her up for festivals and growing special grains for her mash. Every once in a while, though, Sister Amelia yearned for the excitement of the city, and fantasized about running off on the little grey donkey. But remembering her past also brought back memories she was less fond of, and in the end she always found herself happily returning her mind to her new life.
* * *
After a year at St. Laurita’s, Sister Amelia made her own permanent vows and became a full member of the community. As recognition of her new status, she was invited to partake of the steam room for the first time.
Sister Amelia wasn’t exactly sure why she had concealed her physical differences from her sisters for so long. She wasn’t worried about her body; the women of St. Laurita’s were in every size and shape imaginable: most were black, like herself, or Latina, and many, again like her, bore scars or marks of some kind from childbirth, abuse or, in the case of two elderly Mexican sisters, traditional tattoos.
Everyone had already seen the marks of her homeland behind her ears. She had eventually told Mother Angelita that it was Comoros. Her family there had been betrayed by trusted French traders and sold into slavery in Louisiana and Carolina when she was young.
But her legs... Perhaps she had hidden them because she had been sold on the basis of her freakishness so often, or because she didn’t care to tell the story behind her shining clockwork limbs. Or out of the small fear of Mother Angelita’s disapproval. After all, the older woman held the natural in the highest regard: what if she was asked to discard her legs, which she felt necessary to her independence, security, and self?
She would be completely bare in the steam room: no clothes or jewelry, save the sisters’ spiral stone necklaces, were permitted. And so she demurred for some time, but on a bitter February afternoon, she was not asked, but summoned by Mother Angelita to join a handful of other sisters in the steam room.
She was the last to enter, hoping, somehow, that the room would be clouded enough to obscure her legs. But it was not, and so, trying to ignore the others, themselves trying not to stare, she sat near the door, unfastened her legs, and placed them outside of the chamber. She peeled away the stocking-caps and draped them over the tops of the legs. She closed the door and, back straight and graceful, waited for reactions.
After a long moment, Sister Margaret spoke, tremulously. “Creatures?”
“Yes,” said Sister Amelia, and, trying to put her sisters at ease, added, “A very long time ago.”
Remarkably, the rest of the sisters remained silent, some nodding, others meeting her eyes briefly in solidarity over physical difference, and Mother Angelita poured herbed water over hot stones. An enormous cloud went up, and the group fell into meditation.
Sister Amelia had no particular vision she sought, but saw herself on a flying ship, still dressed in her nun’s habit. She dismissed it as a silly daydream, and refocused on the All-Mother. Her mind wandered to Carolina, where she saw herself swimming in a river, and again she dismissed it.
The steam room session ended and Mother Angelita dismissed the group. Sister Amelia reversed her actions of before, drawing on her stocking-caps and legs before leaving the warmth of the steam chamber.
After she washed and dressed, she found Mother Angelita waiting for her. To her relief, the Mother Superior said only, “Please let us know when you need any materials for repair.” And Sister Amelia realized that she was finally and fully part of the sisterhood. She was comfortable, a feeling she’d rarely known before, and her fleeting desires to leave subsided entirely.
* * *
The comfort did not last long. In March and April, several elder sisters began to speak of disturbing visions: rotted lilies floating on the nearby lake, men running across the desert, a horse being burnt on a pyre. The All-Mother had never given any of the sisters false visions before, so the community added an extra person to the daily and nightly watches, and Sister Penelope gave everyone extra lessons with the convent’s brass-ended quarterstaffs, bows, and guns.
Sister Amelia also practiced in her cell, withdrawing and loading her palm-size pistol and knife. They were cleverly hidden within her legs and, while she had never used the gun, the knife had saved her from more than one abduction from the brothel and from certain serious injury at the hands of one very drunk, very strong client. He was not allowed back in the brothel after that, even though Sister Amelia’s fast reflexes had already relieved him of his reasons for visiting. Sister Amelia also always spoke with visitors about what unnaturalness they might have seen, sharing the information with her sisters about defense in case of an emergency.
* * *
Late on a hot summer night, two men on horseback came to the convent. Speaking through the grill in a side door, they pled to be allowed to spend the night inside. Something from the lake area was stalking them, they said, and their horses were exhausted.
Despite some misgivings, Mother Angelita let them in and installed them in the guest quarters. Travelers knew not to get caught in the desert at night: natural animals were common enough, and, in recent months, engineers had been trying to take advantage of the powers and strange properties of the lake.
Visitors had spoken of all sorts of strange sightings in the recent months, although none had had direct contact with anything previously unknown. The sheriff and his men, who visited St. Laurita’s on a regular basis both to check on the sisters and buy their foodstuffs and medicines, had no reports of new problems, but it paid to be cautious.
Indeed, the men had not been careful at the lake. Hours after their arrival, Sister Pippa, the stablemistress, came screaming into the convent’s inner chambers. Struck wordless, she could only lead Mother Angelita, Sister Amelia, and two other sisters to the stables, where she could finally speak.
The travelers’ horses had died suddenly, in a matter of moments, bled out from wounds caused by long, limber claws emerging from their ribs. Sister Penelope, who slept near the stables, had killed the creatures, but the danger was far from over.
Alarmed, Mother Angelita woke an auxiliary defense team and sent them first to the armory and then to the guest quarters. Sister Amelia was part of the team, along with several of St. Laurita’s best fighters, and women with experience in the outside world.
As the regular night team on duty patrolled the walls of the convent, Sister Amelia and three others made their way to the guest quarters, moving cautiously in the candle- and torch-lit convent compound. If the men had been unknowing enough to let their horses drink from the lake, they may have done so themselves. Sister Amelia found herself tense, her breathing rapid.
As they approached the door to the guest quarters, it was clear her apprehension was warranted: shadows danced through the windows, and even as the team took up positions on either side of the door and prepared to enter, the door burst open and one of the men, a small, light-skinned fellow with a well-trimmed moustache and beard, ran out, his eyes open with terror. He screamed as he ran, and Sister Amelia gestured to another woman to follow him.
Aiming her six-shot revolver and drawing her old repeating stiletto with her other hand, she and the two remaining team members leapt into the room. Against the wall, the second man was undergoing the eruption of a lake denizen. His hands flailed uselessly as his throat swelled and chest heaved. The bones of his legs broke with the sound of gunshots, and the man’s eyes widened as they became covered with a thick green film.
Sister Amelia took all of the sight in at once. Sister Monica, on her left, asked in a low, urgent voice, “Can he be saved?” Sister Amelia was already lining up her shot, and said, “No. Throat, chest, knees.” Her first shot had missed the thrashing man, but her second went straight through his throat, and her third took out his left knee.
Sister Monica finished destroying the man’s knees, and Sister Cristina put a neat triad of shots over the man’s heart. The man fell to the floor, and they approached carefully, waiting for the lake creature to appear. After a long moment in which they could hear the distant sobbing of the first man, a long limb ending in a claw broke through the man’s side. Sister Amelia put out her hand to stay her fellow team members.
A second claw, then a third, felt their way out onto the guest house’s floor, and within a few moments, a diamond-shaped head with long narrow eyes and a large mouth pushed its way out of the man’s mouth. Amelia sighed. She knew this creature all too well. She threw the repeating stiletto solidly into the creature’s head, where the clockwork mechanism began to unwind, neatly slicing the head into multiple fragments.
The team waited until the knife had run down, and pulled the limbs away from the head. They carried all of the creature’s parts to the infirmary, where they were packed in oil to be sent to scientists and to be made into medicine. Ironically, tinctures made of the creatures’ bodies mixed with certain herbs hastened healing of wounds, particularly amputations. Sister Amelia had been treated with a similar mixture when creatures took her legs: it had left the ends of her thighs smooth and healthy, and she had never experienced the phantom limb pain suffered by war veterans and others who had not had access to the salve.
In a nearby chamber, Mother Angelita was watching over the first man, who was sedated and lay unconscious on a cot. Outside, Sisters Pippa, Penelope, and two assistants had dragged the horses to the courtyard, where they prepared to take the bodies into the desert to burn them.
Sister Amelia stopped them. “Burn them here,” she said, “in the courtyard. The fire will bring others. Being behind the walls will help protect us.”
Sister Pippa looked at her askance. “We always... Well, the other time, we burnt in the desert.”
“And nothing came?” asked Sister Amelia.
Sister Pippa shook her head, confused.
“You were very lucky. Burn them here.” She went to find Mother Angelica. Later, the convent’s leader would write a report, implore the local lawmen to do more to prevent travelers from accessing the lake and contact other convents in the desert to warn them about the visions and creatures. But now, she sat stroking the hand of the surviving man.
Sister Amelia sat with her, her clothes covered in blood and ichor. She reached into a pocket for bullets and reloaded her gun, her reflexes quick from her previous life.
Mother Angelita looked at her, her eyebrows crowded together with a lack of understanding.
“Mother, you may continue to hold his hand for a moment, but you may... be splattered.” She stood, and emptied her gun into the man’s head, throat, heart, and knees.
Mother Angelita rocked back on her chair. “Sister Amelia...” she struggled for words. “What...”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” said the other woman gently. “I’ve seen this before. A stronger or older one transforms first, to protect the second. The other man was much bigger. This man... he’s small. It only made sense.” And as she spoke, Mother Angelita’s eyes opened wider as she stood, pointing at the body. “It’s... he’s...”
“Yes,” said Sister Amelia. She had the repeating stiletto ready again. As it began to work on the creature, she unlocked the single-shot pistol from above her knee, and shot it in the head, as insurance. She replaced the gun, and looked at the Mother Superior.
Mother Angelita was too stunned to have completely taken in this additional use of Sister Amelia’s prostheses, which satisfied Sister Amelia well enough. “Sit, Mother Angelita,” she said, guiding the woman to a chair. She removed the stiletto from the creature’s head and used it to cut the emerging limbs from the man, avoiding the claws. She folded up his small frame, and began to carry him to the pyre already aflame in the courtyard.
Even without the flames from the pyre in the convent’s courtyard, it was a bright night, with the moon high in the sky and stars shining like sequins. Sister Penelope approached Sister Amelia with a bucket of water. Sister Amelia thanked her and squatted to wash her hands and the repeating stiletto.
Finally, after much scrubbing, she dried her hands and the knife on her apron and turned to her fellow sister, still holding the stiletto. “Sister Pippa said something like this happened once before.”
Sister Penelope shook her head. “What happened before wasn’t like this. This fool Ranger broke away from his company and got lost. When he found this place, he’d almost become a skinwalker from eating and drinking all the wrong things in the desert, and being gnawed on. He made this... partial change.” She gestured to her upper body. “He was dying anyway. Sister Bonita — she died a few years before you came, an old, old lady — she knew about skinwalkers and nursed him a little while until he passed. He wasn’t a creature or whatever those were.”
“Creatures,” Sister Amelia said, “from the lake. Those are water creatures. Specifically, at least according to the scientists in San Lazare, they are Oaxacan Water Pinchers. But I think most people” — she waved her hands about, indicating the world at large — “call them Wajas.”
“Well, what the blazes are they doing in our lake?” Sister Penelope was more angry than frightened. She ground the end of her quarterstaff into a hole in a brick. A rare woman in a Buffalo Soldier regiment, she’d fought things few of her sisters could imagine.
Sister Amelia sighed. “I imagine someone stopping there recently contaminated it; maybe even one of the scientists.” She stood and brushed off her skirts, then raised them on one side to return the stiletto to its usual slot in her leg. She looked up at the moon. “There probably won’t be any coming tonight, or tomorrow, but I would guess within a few days. They shouldn’t be in the lake, though; it’s far too small for a colony to survive.” She looked thoughtful, her fingers playing over the stone spiral at her throat.
She looked at Sister Penelope. “They attach to anyone who drinks from their home lake. When those... hatch... they send out signals that somehow make all the others grow and follow them, usually to a new lake or to the sea.
“When a signal doesn’t come, a few mature Wajas are sent to find the hatchlings and take then back to the lake. Then they send out eggs again until hatchlings send a signal.” She felt confident in saying this, having learned much from the scientists and doctors she had come to know when her legs were taken. They had been very forthright, those men and women, even on occasion making Sister Amelia squeamish with their discussions. She hoped to keep some of the worst from her sisters now.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Kochava Greene