“Please.”An anguished scream ripped through the night as the rain pummeled against the thick stained glass. The heavy splat against the windows was not unlike the streams of unrelenting tears that rolled down her face.
Darkness had come, and with it the howling wind battered at the doors, stirring at the unrest. The fat white candles that littered the room were the only source of illumination, a lightning strike killing the power an hour or two before.
The sisters had gathered, huddled together as mumbled Our Father’s competed against the sound of the storm, fearing the Devil himself was knocking at their door.
It wasn’t just the gale and torrential rain that crackled in the dark. Evil was dense in the air, rolling in like an all-encompassing fog—heavier than the thickest winter coat.
Another scream pierced through the sound of the weather. The very voice tore from her throat like a soul desperate to leave its earthly vessel.
There was no hope. It was the sound of death.
“Please,” she begged. The accumulation of fear and pain weighted in that one word made the sisters’ skin goose bump like the cold that had yet to breach the room. “Please, save him.”
Labored breaths dragged in air behind her chattering teeth.
It was more than a plea, and there was no mistake it would be the woman’s last request.
Sister Catherine’s gaze rose to Mother Superior from her place on the floor. Her knees had been cemented to the very spot for the last ten hours, but not for prayer like the others. She waited for direction as blood stained the cold blue stone rock around her. Both the mother and child were closer to meeting the heavenly Father than the dawn was to the new day.
“Mother, we’re losing her.”
Mother’s eyes closed as she drew out a long, deep breath—Sister Catherine was right—the end was coming quickly.
“We will do all that we can, child. Be at peace.” Her hand brushed against the damp forehead of the expectant mother.
They had been the only words of comfort Mother could offer without betraying the cloth. She couldn’t lie to her. Not because of the promise she had made when she had accepted the habit, but because her very eyes watched as mortality slipped from the blessed child on the floor, the gray pallor of her skin already making her look like a corpse.
“One more push.” Sister Catherine’s attention was refocused, her actions determined to keep Mother’s promise. “I can see the head, but you need to help me.”
Sister Catherine’s hands worked swiftly, her fingers doing their best to work with the limited knowledge she had. Her calling had come during her second year of medical school; the important things not yet learned. But she was young, just barely having accepted her final vows, and her determination to serve was stronger than her fear.
This was not how she’d imagined her vocation, but one did not question when it came to serving the Lord. She would do whatever she needed to do, and tonight it was the experience of her pre-cloistered life that was desperately needed.
There were no further words, not from Sister Catherine nor from the woman who lay in front of her. The last gasps of energy were needed if the mother was going to be able to birth her child, and only the Lord himself knew if either of them would survive.
“Agh!” The mother fell back, the rock beneath her biting into her skin but she no longer felt pain. Not from her body at least, her agony had long been numbed. It was the heaviness in her heart that was her only emotion.
Just a little more.
She wasn’t sure if it had been Sister Catherine’s urging or her own internal thought that spoke those words, but it had been enough to keep her going. Her face strained from the effort as she bore down through the constant contractions. It would have to be enough. She had nothing left.
The child she had carried for nine months slipped from her body, finally making his entrance as she whispered her offering to the Father. That offering being her own sacrifice.
Take me, she prayed. Let him live, take me.
Her eyelids closed as Sister Catherine delivered the son, but there had been no cry. Not from the mother and not from her child, the eerie silence settling into the room as she accepted her fate. In fact, there had been no sound as she took her last breath, her eyes not having the luxury of gazing on the boy she’d been so desperate to save. Whether or not she’d succeeded, beyond her control.
“He’s breathing, barely.” Sister Catherine’s hands swaddled the boy with her own veil, his entrance into the world only a few moments before. “He’s weak, but he’s fighting.” She hoped it would be enough. They had already lost the mother; losing the boy would surely be too much.
“A fighter. Yes, we shall call him Michael.” Mother genuflected beside the altar, offering quick word of thanks before she rose to her feet. There wasn’t a lot of time; they needed to get the child to the hospital and fast.
“Blessed child, Michael.” The tiniest drop of holy water rolled off the infant’s forehead. Mother’s hand hovered above it, her lips moving quickly as the sacred words of baptism spilled from them. It was the best she could do without a priest, but at least she’d given him hope.
“There’s no time for an ambulance. Sister Mary, bring the car around. I will keep him breathing if needed.” Sister Catherine’s resolve kicked in. He would live. He would not die on the cold stained floor of the church.
“Go.” Mother clutched at the crucifix that hung close to her breast and slowly removed it from her neck. “I will care for the mother.” The gold chain placed gently upon the lifeless body of the mother who would never know the child she had birthed.
Sisters Catherine and Mary wasted no time; the boy’s breaths shallow as they ran out of the church into the courtyard toward the old used sedan. The rain soaked their clothes in minutes, the doors closing quickly behind them as the engine roared to life. Thankfully the hospital was not more than a few miles away.
And while it had been Sister Catherine’s previous expertise that had kept Michael alive, Sister Mary’s reputation for her lead foot was exactly what they needed now. The church and the convent quickly faded in the rearview mirror as they sped away.
Catherine and Mary’s attention had been about reaching the hospital, while Mother knelt beside the woman whom she hadn’t known nearly long enough, but had loved like her own child. She remembered the very day she had come to them, the day they had accepted her as one of their own.
She had been so brave; even as the end came her strength had not waned. Fearless, even in the face of her own death. She was safe now, seated with the Father, free from pain and sorrow. The Lord would protect her and do what Mother had been unable to do. God forgive her, while it had been Sister Catherine’s hands that had been bloodied, it had been Mother’s who had worn the biggest stain.
Had her vow of silence been responsible for the death?
“Should we call the police?” Sister Bridget offered, her bright eyes blinking away tears they all felt welling. “Mother? What would you like us to do?”
It was a question Mother had been contemplating for weeks. What she would do when the time came and the child was born. Had she done the right thing? They should have taken her to a hospital. It was insanity to try and handle this within the walls of their sanctuary, and yet it was exactly what she had promised. No one would ever know about the child. Not how he came to be in this world or who his parents had been, his existence hidden by not only her resolve, but that of her devotion to the mother.
No. No one could know.
The plan was set.
The boy was to be reported as abandoned, left in the church’s vestibule with no indication of who the mother was. It was a lie and one she would take to her grave. Her father would judge her, but when that time came she knew he would understand.
“No. No police.” Mother’s voice was hoarse as she removed the veil from her head and covered the body. “Our sister is gone. We will see that she is buried with the faithful at the back, but there can be no record.”
“Mother?” There was a collective gasp, the very fabric of their lives called into question as she told them her plan.
“We must honor her. We must give her the peace in death she was unable to gain in life. I have prayed on it and it is the only way. In this you must trust.” Her voice maintained its steely resolve, even if underneath her heart was breaking.
Did she do everything she could?
God help her, she couldn’t be sure she had.
“Save him.” Mother’s eyes rose to the crucifix mounted on the wall, the words more a prayer than a request. “Please, Lord. Save him.”
Her thoughts returned to the boy, his mother giving her own life so that he might live.