We were three girls and two boys. Julia-Berthe, the oldest, then came Gabrielle, then Alphonse, then me, then Lucien. Alphonse had been just ten and Lucien six, no bigger than spools of thread, when our father had them declared "children of the poorhouse." He'd wasted no time turning them over to a peasant family as free child labor and delivering us girls to the nuns. We hadn't heard anything of our brothers in the three years we'd been at the convent.
Meanwhile, our father was off living the free life, as he always had, caring only about himself.
"I'll be back," he'd said to my sisters and me with the gilded smile of a salesman as he left us at the convent doorstep, patting Gabrielle's proud head, then disappearing into the horizon in his dog cart.
Julia-Berthe, who didn't like change, was inconsolable, not understanding where our mother had gone.
Gabrielle was too angry to cry.
"How could he leave me?" she'd say over and over. "I'm his favorite." And, "We can take care of ourselves. We have been for years already. We don't need these old ladies telling us what to do." And, "We don't belong here. We're not 'orphans." And, "He said he's coming back. That means he is."
And me, then age eight, I cried, confused, not used to the strange ways of the nuns, skirts swishing, rosaries clacking at their sides, clouds of incense drifting by like ghosts, the pungent smell of lye.
The convent was the exact opposite of all we'd known. We were told when to wake, when to eat, when to pray. The day was allocated into tasks: study, catechisms, sewing, housekeeping. The passing of time marked by the ringing of l'angélus, the prescribed prayers of the Divine Office. "Idle hands," the nuns repeated endlessly, "are the devil's workshop."
Even the days of the week, the weeks of the month, the months of the year were partitioned into what the nuns said were the seasons of the liturgy. Instead of January 15 or March 21 or December 19, it was the twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time or the Monday of the first week of Lent or the Wednesday of the third week of Advent. The afterlife was divided into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. There were the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost, the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Six Holy Days of Obligation, the Four Cardinal Virtues.
We learned about Saint Etienne, a hunchbacked monk whose tomb was in the sanctuary, his stone figure lying in repose on top, more figures of monks carved into the stone canopy. During Mass, I would trace with my eyes the knots and loops in the stained glass windows, the overlapping circles that looked like Cs for Chanel, for my sisters and me forever intertwined. I didn't want to think of what was in that tomb, the old bones, an empty burlap robe.
"There are ghosts here," Julia-Berthe would whisper to me, her eyes wide. There were holy ghosts, unholy ghosts, ghosts of every kind making the flames in the votives sway, hiding in corners and narrow passageways, throwing shadows on the walls. Ghosts of our mother, our father, our past.
Sometimes in the mornings while we bathed or in the evenings when we were to say our prayers silently, Julia-Berthe would grab my arm and squeeze. "I have dreams at night, frightening dreams." But she wouldn't tell me any more. I wondered if she had the same dream I had, of our mother in a bed with no coverlet, a bloody handkerchief in her hand, bitter cold seeping in through the thin walls. Her eyes closed, her thin body unmoving.
I taught myself to wake in the middle of these dreams, to shake off the image and climb into bed with Gabrielle. She'd let me curl into her as I did when we were young—before Aubazine we'd never had beds of our own—and be comforted by the heat of her body, the rolling rhythm of her breathing, until I fell asleep again.
Then too early in the morning, the sun still not up, the bells would sound. Sister Xavier would burst into the dormitory, clapping her hands and announcing in her too loud voice, "Awake up, my glory! Awake, psaltery and harp!"
After that, the chiding would begin.
"Faster, Ondine, faster. Judgment Day will come and go before you have your shoes on!"
"Hélène, you have much to pray for. Make haste!"
"Antoinette, stop talking to Pierrette and remake your bed. It's slovenly!"
The nuns of Aubazine gave us shelter. They fed our stomachs. They tried to save our souls, to civilize us by filling our days with order and routine. But they couldn't fill the empty places in our hearts.