‘Sister Benedicta is crying.’
The whisper flies round the beehive-shaped cell like a drone’s buzz, exciting everyone at supper. The other Sisters are diverted by any alteration in our mundane daily routine. The smooth-skinned novices are both entertained and disturbed to see one of the elders of their ancient order displaying any kind of emotion.
I’m seated on the dusty stone floor, enjoying the discomfort, eating my supper slowly and with constant prayer, as is our rule.
The dim air is laced with smoke from the fire, the roof hole at the apex of the beehive being too narrow to allow it to escape in anything but a leisurely fashion. In the glow of firelight, I can see Sister Benedicta’s wrinkled face. She has two glistening lines like silver thread running from the corner of each dark slit eye to the upturned bowl of her mouth.
This ancient woman, narrow-hipped and stoical, who has stood unmoved beside the deathbed of many a Sister, is shedding tears over her own supper bowl.
One of the women on kitchen duty crosses herself as though we are witnessing some supernatural event, or perhaps a Divine Visitation – which would suit our holy order very well indeed. We have not had a genuine Visitation in several decades, and some are beginning to whisper that the Maker has forgotten us.
‘What is it, Sister?’ she asks reverently, bending towards the old woman, whose years have been said to number as many as one hundred and fifty. A strand of fiery hair has escaped from under her cap, for she is red-haired and creamy-skinned like so many of the Sisterhood. ‘You are unwell?’
‘Miella,’ Sister Benedicta whispers, pointing with one bony finger to the bowl before her.
She means the honey, of course, in which our supper cakes have been soaked today, then sprinkled with tiny black poppy seeds.
Two days ago, a group of bearded, black-robed pilgrims from Isola stopped and traded with us in the age-old manner. Jars of sticky honey from their island bees, and two sacks of grain in exchange for our prayers. The honey is delicious and sweet, but a little sharp on the tongue too, a distinctive taste.
‘Are the honey cakes bad, Sister? Shall I remove them?’
‘No, no. A thousand times, no.’
The old woman shakes her head emphatically. Above her white hair, smoke drifts towards the roof hole, drawn ever upwards in a spiralling path.
‘When I was a small child,’ she tells us in the dry, cracked voice that makes even the greenest novice fall silent, ‘I would play in the fields with the other children. My mother would walk out to bring us lunch wrapped up in a cloth. I remember … the smell of the wild grasses … the poppy fields. My mother, my young brother … Their faces … Ah …’
And with that strangled little sound, Sister Benedicta buries her face in her withered hands, and rocks back and forth like a child in pain.
The whole room falls silent, listening to her muffled sobs.
‘Thell?’ The red-haired girl next to me glances my way, then warily licks her fingers. ‘I don’t understand,’ she whispers. ‘Should we eat or not?’
‘There is nothing wrong with the food,’ I tell her. ‘Eat your supper. Sister Benedicta is from the islands, that is all. Like the honey.’
I do not live with the Sisters most of the year, being one of those chosen by the Abbas to follow the solitary path. It’s some twelve years since I was singled out for the honour of being a Desert Sister. I keep a tally of the years, drawn with a sharp stone on the crumbling wall of my cell, for writing materials are scarce and reserved for the Abba fathers and their study of the scriptures.
My cell is a good two to three days’ walk from the caves where our Order has its base, west into the desert. There are a few other Sisters living and worshipping out here among the desolate rocks, but I never see or hear them.
Once or twice a year, I journey back to the Abba Father to make my confession – if no one has travelled out to hear it in my cell – and to renew my basic stores for survival – if no travellers have stopped to trade with me. Some months, I seem to have endless interruptions: nomads who stare fiercely and mutter under their breath in a language I do not understand; traders offering supplies of grain and pulses; new followers who wish to share some holy fellowship with a hermit before returning to their everyday lives in one of the towns beyond the desert.
Other months, nobody comes.
During the quiet times, I tend my small plot, milk my bad-tempered goat, and sit alone in prayer. Some days I do nothing but study and pray, neglecting to eat or sleep, welcoming physical hardship like an old friend.
Some days I decide, ‘That’s enough. I cannot bear this life any longer.’
So I pack my meagre belongings in a sack and peer out into the wavering sun-haze, determined to leave my cell forever.
Standing in the narrow doorway, I press imaginary footprints into the sand, a journey that begins here and stretches all the way back to my old life. Somewhere out there my family still waits, my father and my laughing aunts and uncles, still young and with arms outstretched, ready to welcome me back into the fold. Ready to forget what the Abba told them before the priests dragged me away from the village, to forget me weeping and begging my father to intervene. That my destiny had been decided by the Maker at the very moment of my birth. That for me to stay with my family would mean both my death and theirs.
There is no one here to stop me leaving my cell. To stop me returning to the world outside.
The choice to remain is mine alone.
The choice to obey.
Abba Macarius reminds me of that at every visit.
The shimmer of distant sands lures me.
In my mind’s eye, I take the first step away from this torment, and then another, then another. My hated cell shrinks in the distance, nothing but a hot dusty hell I’ve crouched in these twelve years.
Yet I never leave.
When evening falls, humility returns. I shiver in the chill, then shut the door to my cell and turn my back on it.
I light the lamp to dispel the darkness, even though it is an extravagance, and fall on my knees to beg the Maker’s forgiveness. On such days I welcome the pain in my knees. It’s good to do penance for my weakness. And the pain is familiar, at least.
After prayer, and something to eat, I study the scriptures for a while, determined to be more resolute in my faith.
Then I sit to comb the grit of desert sand from my hair. The task seems to take hours but always teaches me something vital. Each grain is so tiny in the rough palm of my hand, it is hard to imagine any existence so miniscule. Yet together those grains make up the vast, burning furnace that is my life and my salvation.
Some nights, a star falls in the darkness above the desert and I remember something my father used to say when I was young. That every star, however small, however insignificant, has a name.
And a destiny.