A Fire in the Belly
The nuns said you didn't have the nerve to wear widow-black the rest of your life. They said you gave me up so you could start over, find a man. Was it difficult giving up your little girl and moving to the big city? Did you find a good man, mother?
Oh, my poor mother.
We'll be happy to see each other, you and me, and we won't remember anything of this life. And the Reverend Mother will be there, too. We'll hug and kiss, and then we'll massage each other's aching feet.
There was an oily priest who used to come to the orphanage the first Monday of every month. I hated him. He was such a dirty man. His hair was long, braided in the back like mine. He knew I hated him. Whenever our eyes would meet, that unwashed man would march off to find the nearest nun and scold her until she promised to do something about the fire in my belly. "Why isn't she looking away?" he'd demand.
Well, if I've learned something this long life, it's that you should always look at a priest sideways, just to make certain his expression doesn't change when he thinks you're not looking. Truly devoted people carry one face--that look of discomfort, as if they've got a painful hip or something.
You should have seen his beard, mother. There were always bits of food in it. What if I said he carried an olive pit in there for a whole day? Filthy! Filthy! Everyone rejoiced when the pit finally came loose and fell to the floor, even the nuns.
Those poor women--whores for the priests!
There was one particular nun who loved to pinch the skin on my arm when no one was looking. I didn't hate her, but she did add to my misery.
Oh, my aching back. I shouldn't get so excited. It won't be long now, mother. We'll be happy to see each other--you and me. And we won't remember anything of this life.
Did I tell you the dirty priest smelled like swine? Please mother, if he's there with you, don't let him know what we're talking about, or I won't continue. I've got more terrible things to say yet.
I started following him on the first Monday of every month. I was small as a child, and I could fold my body easily into any good hiding space. One such Monday, the dirty priest walked into the Reverend Mother's bedroom.
I knew she wasn't in there, and so I followed him and hid by the dresser. It was easy, actually. He never closed the door. He just walked in and lay down on her bed.
Listen to me, mother. There's nothing wrong with knowing the truth. If I hadn't followed the priest that day, I might have become a nun. God forbid.
When the Reverend Mother finally appeared, she was carrying a roll of swine fat. It was rolled tight, the way you might roll a newspaper, only bigger. She needed both her hands to carry it. It was as big as my thigh is now, for heaven's sake. I thought she was going to beat him with it, but she set it down instead, and started to peel away the priest's robe. I wanted to run, mother, but I couldn't move. I had to see what she was going to do.
Slowly and carefully she began to rub his body with the fat. She had to use both of her hands and lean into the work. He made terrible noises as the Reverend Mother massaged his belly, worked her way around his big crucifix. I wanted her to stop, and I would have jumped out from my hiding place had I not seen her face. She was peering through her lashes, eyes half closed, her mouth slightly open.
After the Reverend Mother left the room, promising the priest she would come back to wipe him down, he closed his eyes and slept as his skin soaked up the swine fat. I thought he looked like a giant wick, the kind we fuelled with boiled fat when the olive oil was scarce.
I reached up with my hand and felt for matchsticks next to the incense chalice on the dresser. I was sure the priest would catch quickly. When I couldn't find the matches, I rose from my hiding place.
He was snoring like a pig, mother, on that poor woman's bed -- her only comfort. I couldn't help myself. I set him on fire with my eyes.
It was very dream-like as the skin on his chest crackled, blackened and then split. But he continued to snore, and so I lit his beard on fire, forcing him to his feet, the flames dripping from his body as he ran for the door. I remember sniffing at the air, mother, because it'd seemed so real.
"Ssssst!" I startled him out of his sleep, the way you might force a goat out of your way. He was so greased up -- I knew he couldn't move. And so I just stayed there looking at him up and down, until he averted his eyes.
Ask her, mother. Ask the Reverend Mother why she rubbed the swine fat all over the naked priest's body? Did he not like to bathe in water, the filthy man? Ask her, mother. I've had a terrible fire smoldering in my belly all these years. Didn't she know that he was just a pathetic man -- mother?