Ave Maria Convent School was a Christian institution. It had remained so for more than a century of tropical suns and monsoon moons and within that endlessness of time established itself as an indomitable monument of colonialism, which changed the natural course of that island’s history, forever. In truth, it was only the old Dutch chapel set in the remotest corner of the school compound, hidden by impenetrable foliage giving way to a narrow passageway that was as old as Ave Maria Convent claimed to be. And those who strove to preserve its aura of ancient mysticism succeeded mostly due to the mere readiness of people to create and continue a legend out of the ‘whispering walls’ of the small white chapel. Those walls were so permeated with generations of high-pitched youthful singing that even at the most secluded moments a faint hum of an angel’s breath, a whispered prayer ruffled the air locked within the antique structure.
The nuns, of course, were very modest about its history, discreet about the legend; so flamboyant about the prestige of their institution that they naturally became the strictest Victorians of the island. Their standards of moral discipline peaked every morning as they sang their halleluiahs to a crucified saviour and his mother of sorrows in the dim light that seeped through the painted glass windows.
Later, aided by its inauthentic claims to antiquity, unhindered by its many instances of academic failure, Ave Maria Convent became, in a fashionable world, a fashion.
A few years of breeding within the institution for the lucky daughters of the rich, became a thing to be mentioned at social gatherings and in Sunday matrimonial columns.
On that sunny September morning, in the principal’s office, sister Mary Francheska settled herself to read the English newspaper. She was a buxom woman, broad hipped, short, whose bearing declared she was born to be a mother in the natural sense of the word. But she had entered the order, convinced that no man was worthy of her love but the Ultimate Himself. Her share of disappointments as a young, passionate girl had led her to believe that the height of her devotion, the depth of her faith, was indeed too sublime to be slighted by a mortal; and in a sense she had found reciprocity with the Immortal. In his acceptance: the silence of God.
She skimmed through the pages, sneaking mischievously at matrimonials: an act that purged the leftovers of a vain hope; an act in which she was cathartically desperate for the world she left behind; a secret ritual that helped to preserve sanity in a woman of her kind.
But the feeling of despair that coloured her that morning had different reasons behind it. Sister Francheska put down the newspaper sighing, stepped into reality and eyed the document on her table – her problem for the day– with clear disgust. She didn’t quite know how to handle this one. After all, it was not another surreptitious love letter hunted out from a school bag of a frightened girl in love. Those she knew how to handle. Years of experience had made her a soldier-angel fighting the hot blood that gushed in these adolescent girls under her care: a coolness of attitude, the right mix of head and heart, the cutting edge of Christian morality, to bring those love-struck souls to their senses. It wasn’t easy, no, for that helpelssness in the eyes of a girl confronting her reminded her of her own. It wasn’t easy, though she claimed to be a practical person. And at times she loved these girls under her care, squeaking like blind little nestlings for life and its pains, a little too much.
What bothered sister Francheska that morning was not a love note, but a short story written by Rosetta de Silva of 8th standard. Attested to be original by none other than sister Francheska herself. The letter on her table declared that the story was selected to be awarded at an all island open short story competition sponsored by Lafemme, the multi-national soap company. But receipt of the letter was followed by a telephone call from the board of judges who realized, a bit too late unfortunately, that the author was in fact a schoolgirl, barely fourteen. The fact that she came from Ave Maria Convent added the much needed spice for a mini-controversy.
They questioned the story’s originality. They questioned the integrity of sister Mary Francheska the principal of Ave Maria Convent School.
Sister Francheska smelled the rat. She knew that there were probably reasons besides originality that led to a disqualification, if it were to happen. She had no faith in all island competitions.
She had not, in truth, gone through the story when the script was brought to her to be attested. She looked at the girl, Rosetta. Ah; she had a flare with words. Another story? Good! Keep up the writing! And she had just signed. At the time she entertained no doubts about its originality. Rosetta was a sincere student; one of those serious types who never got involved in a broil. Indeed sister Francheska was quite aware of Rosetta’s potential. She had heard the English literature teacher praising the child and her essays being read by other teachers in the staff room.
But she wasn’t prepared for the perplexity that engulfed her when she finally read the story.
The previous evening she had gotten a hold of Rosetta’s English Essays book and taken it to her room. Post-dinner, she settled among her fresh, immaculate sheets, opened the narrow window for a wet night’s breeze and lazily opened the exercise book. Its pages were sprinkled with horrific spelling mistakes corrected in a glaring lurid red.
She read the story. Confused, she read it again. Unnerved, she read every single essay in the book. From word to word; without skipping a page. And she read way into the night, till the moon rose over the chapel’s head crucifix and inside its walls the whispers swelled into a medieval midnight chorus.
When she finally put the book down she had to wipe a film of perspiration off her brow.
It was a riot of imagination. A bacchanalia of senses. Something that shattered the silence and sleep of the night. Something that mocked the tranquillity of her existence. Wide-awake, sister Francheska felt trapped in those pages. A slanting, uneven hand of a fourteen year old child had transported her alive onto the burning streets of Ho-Chi-Ming, with the sun drying up the blood on the cracked windowpanes and the stench of fire feeding on dead bodies fouling the air. A shell-shocked child orphaned in war trying to help a dying enemy soldier by hiding him in an underground tunnel; trying to save the last human connection. Their growing intimacy a departure from standards of normalcy. Their effort to survive exceeding the extremes. A farrago of emotions flooding a singular scene of carnage and obsession that belied the façade of humanity.
In the coolness of the night breeze sister Francheska shuddered at the story’s lucidity, its terror, profoundly different from the placid existence within Ave Maria Convent. Yet it was so vividly portrayed that she couldn’t quite name what it was about the story that tossed the readers’ hope so cruelly, like a loose coin. Since sister Francheska had never seen Hollywood war thrillers she didn’t quite recognize that desperate urge to flee, one only feels otherwise in obsessive nightmares. It wasn’t an excellence in language or even the reality of passion that made the story powerful. No refined adjectives or sweeping climaxes, nor cleverness of plot. Had sister Francheska known that it was just a child’s attempt to harness her imagination when it dreamt its wildest, what would she figure out? That it’s all in the subtle shock of breaking the boundaries that limited their existences? Challenging the fake morality, their faith in humanity, tampering with the very rules that Ave Maria Convent itself stood for and guarded? Then would she call it what the others usually called it? Or would she doubt its originality the way the judges did? Point out that the child wasn’t even born when the war she writes about took place in some other part of the world?
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
In her fitful sleep sister Francheska realized that she would have judged the girl harshly hadn’t she read the rest of the essay book, cleared her doubts and accepted the possibility of the impossible. Luckily, neither the words ‘pervert’ nor ‘genius’ came to her mind.
Sitting in her principal’s chair the next day, sister Francheska wavered between her student and the white world she mocked; the office walls, her own cassock, the school uniforms, the chapel, the chalk.
Her institution. Her student.
She neatly weighed the sides with a typical shrewdness: her institution’s fame against her student’s potential. Of course she knew that Rosetta was original, but she knew she would have to make a strong case against the judges, risking the reputation of Ave Maria Convent, all for a short story. All for a silly competition of a soap company. Soap suds indeed!
Sister Francheska decided that defending Rosetta would be foolish. The child had a flare for controversy, a forbidden taste of life. A broil in which sister Francheska did not wish to involve her institution. She was glad she did not declare the contents of the document in front of her, to the staff. Or to Rosetta.
She briskly lifted the phone and called the board of judges, boldly agreeing to let them interview the child as requested and also to hand over the letter declaring her position in the competition, if Rosetta failed to prove original. She had to be practical, she told herself later.
The judges had been clever despite their careless mistake. Their doubts appeared well founded. They were counting on sister Francheska’s reaction at the prospect of the winning stories being published in foremost Sunday journals. Surely she didn’t fancy her students writing that kind of stories for the public!
“Sister Francesca, we are very sorry about this mess-up,” he three gentlemen were very polite. They hailed from the capital’s highest institution of learning, the distinguished judges of youth and talent of the country.
“Francheska” she corrected her name softly. “It is understandable, professor…luckily I didn’t inform the child” she continued, adjusting her cap.
All of them smiled delightedly at sister Francheska’s sensibility.
“Oh, that’s very convenient, sister.”
“Actually, we cannot help the situation”
“We must heed the sponsors too…” the three gentlemen purred one after the other and suddenly sister Francheska felt overwhelmed by their presence, equally polite and demanding; a little too much to handle.
“You may interview her now, if you want” she said, trying to hide the schoolgirl coyness creeping into her voice.
Since the principal didn’t want the interview to be done in her office due to personal reasons and in the staff room due to lack of privacy plus the three gentlemen themselves decided a dramatic location to stage their little comedy, Rosetta de Silva was called to the Ave Maria Chapel.
For an interview.
In the cool dim light within the chapel a surprised child was questioned quickly by three gentlemen whose faces she could never recall later, try as she might. For once the famous whispering walls of the chapel were silent. The questions were not as grand as the setting.
“What are your hobbies?”
“From where do you borrow books to read?’”
“Who are your favourite authors?”
Rosetta answered indecisively, confidence deserting her voice with every word uttered. She had been in the sun when she was called into the chapel and her eyes were slow to get used to the darkness. For a few minutes, it was as if God was interrogating her in three different voices.
Gradually three faces took shape in front of her; their voices bounced back from the walls, unabsorbed; demanding to be answered:
“Who taught you about Vietnam? That is not in your school curriculum.”
“Why didn’t you write about the war in your own country?”
The questions confused Rosetta. She blinked and remained silent for a long time. When she opened her mouth to answer she felt like a dead fish floating in a small tank feeling slightly guilty in her inconspicuous death.
Then, she was asked to return to her classroom.
Back in the office the three gentlemen started smiling again. Sister Francheska smiled in return and adjusted her cap coyly. For a split second she thought they had decided in favour of Rosetta.
But the child hadn’t impressed them. They found her rather hesitant and ordinary. Sister Francheska confirmed that the girl indeed was average: a normal schoolgirl; with a weakness for spellings.
“The story is too…extraordinary, to be written by an average girl like her,” they concluded.
“So the average can never be above average; ordinary never be extraordinary?” sister Francheska couldn’t help asking.
“Can a mortal be divine, sister?” they silenced her with a masterstroke.
“She must have copied it from some book she read; or maybe translated.”
The principal grew crimson.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to ask for the original letter back.”
“By all means, we want to encourage creativity. We will try to give her a certificate of merit or something, in recognition of her effort.”
“For that we have to talk to other decision making bodies.”
Sister Francheska thrust the letter back without a word.
“Thank you for your cooperation sister Frances…sorry – Francheska!”
A final slap before she slammed the door after them.
Once alone she sat down with a sob. The memory of the previous night hit her full blast like a locomotive in the dark. So my student wasn’t original! Was Shakespeare? Simply because their empty skulls can’t think!
Sister Francheska felt beaten by her own senses. How original could one be in this world after all? She kept muttering to herself for days.
She decided not to let Rosetta know the truth about her short story, fearing that it might damage her further. She assuaged her own guilt by hoping in vain that Rosetta will, in her road to womanhood and love, fare a lot more than a disqualified short story. After all she had to be practical about it!
Years later, when Rosetta passed out of the convent sister Francheska never tried to keep track of her, the way she did with the other bright students of the school. So she never knew what became of her; or whether she had ‘done well in life’ according to sister Francheska’s standards.
Every Christmas, year after year after year, long after she retired from the school to her small room with the old chapel in view, sister Francheska received greeting cards in that unforgettable hand, slanting letters looped, that reminded her of a particular book of English essays, sprinkled with horrific spelling errors corrected in red. They were posted from different corners of the earth – India, Romania, Brazil – unlike other greeting card senders from rich countries whose from addresses remained fairly the same. Finally the old nun was convinced that the sender had gone too far, to trace her steps back home.
Then a time came when Reverend Mother Superior, Mary Francheska couldn’t read the bundle of Christmas cards she received and couldn’t recognize the faces that came to pay their respect to her, as she lay among the immaculate linen, a Madonna at her head. Girls whom she had loved and punished as a principal, who grew up to be mothers and nuns as she predicted in Monday morning assemblies. For some reason she kept calling every one of them Doreen. They all smiled sadly down at her, love and tears welling in their eyes. They kissed her hand and whispered silent Hail Mary’s kneeling beside her bed. In her last days the Mother looked as if she would continue living forever that way, holding life and death side by side.
One January evening a stranger entered the Mother’s room, carrying a jingle of gypsy trinkets and a faint whiff of sea. The air blushed like feelings. The Mother opened her eyes to see a luminous woman kneeling beside her bed.
“You are not Doreen,” the Mother whispered with conviction. The visitor smiled. A rare patience marked her brow and a fan of laugh lines gathered at the corners of her mouth. She was the kind of woman who would have a high tropical laugh, with her head thrown back; the way much simpler women of that island laughed when they were loved and happy. The Mother tried to recall a girl’s face that could have grown up to be this extraordinary woman…with this magic and mystery in her eyes. She must have been an ordinary girl, she thought. Ordinary. Extraordinary. A woman without a name. She closed her eyes and joined the visitor’s prayer. Through the narrow window the soft light of a setting sun, carrying the shadow of the chapel-head crucifix fell glowing gold upon them. And the stranger held the Mother’s hand long after their mutual prayer was over….
By the end of September the results of the all island open short story competition, sponsored by Lafemme Soap, was announced grandly in the newspapers. The winner was a middle-aged writer with a few books of poetry and prose to his credit. Despite the confusion of the absurdly laconic interview at the chapel Rosetta de Silva had not suspected anything. She wasn’t surprised or disappointed because she hadn’t been hopeful. She had only entered the competition hoping to receive some comments. Unfortunately the three gentlemen hadn’t offered any.
When she came across the winning entry published in a daily she read it in a gulp. It was then the feeling returned to her; the dead-fish-floating-in-the-glass-prison-tank feeling. Still she was too young to figure it out all by herself. The principal avoided an explanation and she couldn’t demand one. She spent the confused day away from her friends, engulfed by an uncanny sense of revolt and despair.
After school, Rosetta ran to the sanctuary of the Dutch chapel. She was not a devout Christian and most of the time at mass she did not pray. She didn’t skip mass either, for somehow she liked the ritual than the faith. As her teachers and friends lost themselves in a communal chant, their voices soaring past ages to resurrect a man they shared in loving, she saw Him come to life, vibrant and breathing their devotion.
The chapel was secluded now. Silent. Empty like a shell without the calling. Rosetta sat for a while, unseeing, unhearing, the weight of growing up suddenly crashing down on her shoulders. A huddled foetus in an ancient womb; disoriented by life’s pain as it fought to be born.
Rosetta wiped an unwanted tear and looked up. For the first time she became aware of the stillness around her; and then the whispering of the walls. The murmur was soft and secret. As she listened with all her senses, the clamour inside her ebbed.
Little light came through the coloured glass panes, blue, orange, green. A candle flickered at the feet of Madonna, the mother of sorrows. A lonely figure with a bowed head. A lambent woman with infinitely sad eyes, who again, paid heavily for her creation, the world didn’t quite acknowledge as hers. The greatness she bore bled on the crucifix above her: The extraordinary man the world so feared and faulted and later revered in churches and chapels. And she, a Mary, an ordinary woman; the creator, the woman they worshipped.
Rosetta closed her eyes and joined hands to absorb the wisdom of the whispers. It was one of those fleeting moments that grew people up by years; that people remember throughout life; small sparks of enlightenment to recall in moments of bitterness to keep going; when nameless experience shines on a traveller like the morning sun and sudden infinite perception clears up the course one lost during the dark ignorant night.
Rosetta crossed herself before she left; a lean lonely figure, not yet a woman, no more a child, counting her steps along the aisle. The watchwords of Ave Maria Convent gleamed above the Madonna, the candlelight played with its gothic lilt, as the walls mysteriously murmured:
Virgin Most Pure. Pray For Us.