Even before she heard her speak, Sister Perpetua knew from the sweep of her skirts and the smell of rosemary it was the abbess who had come to relieve her. After all, no-one else would enter another nun’s cell without knocking. After three days of isolation, the older woman’s words seemed to drum on her ears.
“You may rise.”
Sister Perpetua peeled herself from the flagstones. Only now that her limbs had permission to move, did she notice how they ached.
“You may sit on the cot.”
Sister Perpetua had feared she might faint if she remained standing, so she was glad to be allowed to perch on her straw pallet while the abbess towered above her.
“Have you repented, My Child?”
She had prayed night and day to the Blessed Virgin to intercede for her, but she still didn’t know whether it were God or the Devil that had kindled this fire in her throat. She stared at her bare toes, red and swollen with chilblains. “I don’t know what came over me, Reverend Mother.”
“The ague, My Child. God will often send some pestilence to test us during the forty days of Lent. Why, even Sister Benedictus cried out last night …” In the light of the guttering candle, Sister Perpetua thought she saw fear in the abbess’s eyes. Yet she rapidly regained her composure. “God’s way is never easy but the rewards are great. Now you’ve recovered from your fever, I’ll send a novice with some gruel and you can join us for Vespers.”
Sister Perpetua nodded. It would be good to take her place among her sisters in the choir stalls and, if the abbess thought she could manage it, then surely she could.
At the door, the abbess hesitated. “I’ve spoken to the bishop. And the bishop has spoken to the archbishop. So you should know that I have it on the highest authority. Plainchant is plainchant and always will be. Each and every voice at the same pitch at precisely the same time.”
Every day she thanked God that He’d chosen her for the cloistered life. Every year, as another Visiting Day was measured by yet another of her sister Elisabet’s confinements, she had reason to be grateful to have escaped the yoke of marriage. So much more freedom in the toll of the bells that summoned her to work, to pray, to study. So much more joy in the rhythms of resignation.
Yet, sitting alone in her tiny cell, waiting for the novice to bring her the food that would give her body the strength to resume her duties, Sister Perpetua had a thought so unwelcome it made her dizzy. That the familiar routines might not be supportive, but smothering. She shook her head, as if to rid herself of the dregs of malaria the abbess had detected within her. Her memory of the other morning in the chapel was cloudy, yet she was convinced her fever, if it existed at all, had been not cause, but the consequence, of her crying out. Her voice had soared above the others, taken wing and floated up to the rafters, not in sickness, but ecstasy.
With a tap at the door, the novice crept in, bearing a wooden bowl before her like a blessed chalice. Sister Perpetua wanted to grab the food and gobble it down, but that wouldn’t be respectful of either God or her own growling stomach. She clasped her hands, bent her head to say grace, before taking the bowl from the girl. “You needn’t stay.”
“Sister Augusta said I must return with the bowl.”
Sister Perpetua recognised the sullen voice as belonging to Francesca, one of the more troublesome novices. With her tortured questions and her childish tantrums, she was slow to adapt to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Sisters were beginning to wonder if she’d ever be ready to take her vows.
But that wasn’t Sister Perpetua’s problem. She turned her attention to the porridge, spooning it slowly into her mouth, her heart swelling with the grace of God’s bounty as it warmed her insides.
“Will you be coming to Vespers?” said Francesca.
Sister Perpetua thought of Sister Augusta in her kitchen, stirring a cauldron of gruel. Counting the wooden bowls stacked on the shelves and ensuring, like the Good Shepherd with his sheep, that none would go astray.
“Will you …? Will you sing again?”
Sister Perpetua put down her spoon. She stared hard at the girl, unsure which of them was most afraid. What would become of Francesca if she couldn’t take her vows? In all probability, she’d be cast out into the world to fend for herself.
“I do hope you’ll sing,” said Francesca. “The other morning, you were like an angel. It was most beautiful sound I’ve heard in all my life.”
Sister Perpetua felt her mouth go dry, despite the watery gruel. The abbess was right. What God wanted was plainsong: all of them chanting together, hardly varying the notes and never a single voice distinguishing itself from the others. If ever she was tempted to let it happen again, she would picture her sister, sweating and panting, pushing out a baby glistening with blood and slime from between her legs. But first she must point Francesca along the path of abnegation. “Return to the kitchen,” she said, “and inform Sister Augusta that you have broken the rule forbidding conversation in the dormitories.”
Many years later, when they gathered around the abbess’s body in the Lady Chapel, it brought some comfort to the nuns to know that their chant of Requiem aeternam dona eis would’ve sounded in Heaven as a single voice. Sister Perpetua prayed also for the soul of her sister, Elisabet, recently called to God by the birth of her twelfth child.
They elected a new abbess, and the days settled down as before, the nuns shuffling quietly between the dormitory cells and the lavatorium, the refectory and the abbey. Only the seasons altered, and even the fact that Francesca was unable to take her vows came as no surprise.
Sister Perpetua was weeding between the onions when the postulant arrived to call her to an urgent assembly in the chapter house. Rubbing her hip as she hobbled along the cloister, she was convinced the pope must’ve died for the abbess to interrupt the morning work hour. So it was a relief to find that it was merely that the bishop had sent a choirmaster to introduce the nuns to a new style of singing. Yet, once reassured that His Holiness had not been taken from them, she found the actual purpose of the meeting no less disturbing.
Sister Perpetua always remembered to thank God that, while her body was failing, He’d left her mind as sharp as ever. Yet she couldn’t understand what the choirmaster meant by this new method of singing the offices. Different people singing different words and melodies all jumbled up together? Such a clash of voices had to be the work of the Devil.
Sister Perpetua wasn’t alone in her confusion. Sister Catalina could hardly suppress her giggles.
“What is it Sister Catalina?” said the abbess.
“Forgive me, Reverend Mother, but it reminds me of Francesca’s ranting.”
The choirmaster beamed. “Where is this Sister Francesca? Perhaps she could explain it to you more clearly than I can.”
A coughing and shifting of habits filled the gap before the abbess spoke. “Francesca isn’t one of the sisters. Just one of God’s unfortunates that Sister Catalina cares for in the infirmary.”
Poor Francesca: they’d always known she’d never take her vows. Her father should have given her to a husband instead of confining her to the convent. Sister Perpetua used to visit her from time to time until Sister Catalina admitted that her presence unsettled her charge, left her screaming and tugging at her chains.
“Imagine the various voices blending together,” said the choirmaster. “Like the separate sections of the convent, each dependent on each other, working in partnership to create an organism that pays far greater homage to God’s glory than any individual component could ever do alone, no matter how magnified.”
The nuns seated at either side of Sister Perpetua on the wooden bench were nodding. As she wriggled her toes, crumbs of soil rubbed against the leather insoles of her sandals. There would be no point her toiling in the herb garden without Sister Augusta waiting in the kitchen to peel and chop and boil the produce for the table. Similarly, she’d be as helpless as a baby without the sisters from the sewing room to clothe her. It was obvious now how much the community relied on the nuns’ dedication to their distinct tasks. Why had she been so blind to their differences, as if their grey scapulas and bland food blocked out all else? As if she hadn’t noticed how the devotions altered with the Hours, from Matins through to Compline. Sister Perpetua’s heart thumped against her ribcage and, in her throat, her vocal cords quivered.
“I know it sounds strange,” said the choirmaster, “but once I teach you your parts, you’ll understand. After all, it was a nun, just like you, who invented harmony.”
The sisters shook their heads, not sure they’d heard him correctly. God would not choose a humble nun to institute such a radical change. But soon that was forgotten as all eyes turned to Sister Perpetua.
Did she cry out? Or did she only imagine her voice rising to the heavens and hovering there among the angels before crashing back to earth? The nuns at either side of her broke the worst of her fall, but they couldn’t prevent the belt of pain around her chest from pressing on her heart until it finally stopped beating. They couldn’t ease the terrifying visions that accompanied it, nor the devilish cacophony, as her beloved sister, Elisabet, writhed in agony as she delivered child after mewling child.