Since about May of 2018, I’ve been working on a short story cycle set in the universe of Percy County– a place where I’ve started to set a lot of my work across all the genres I create in (stories, essays, game design, images), and a place that is Very Deeply inspired by the southern/midwestern mining/farming communities I grew up in. The story cycle is far from finished, but here’s a taste of it: Sister Bridget.
There was only one Catholic church in Percy County. The second-largest single congregation, sure, but this was a deeply protestant town (Baptist, Anabaptist, and Pentecostal, mostly). Sitting smack in the middle of everything and barely a hundred yards from the courthouse, St. Bruno’s commanded an entire block to itself, with its modest cathedral and rectory, separate “farmer’s” chapel for pre-dawn penance, k-5 grade school, parishioners’ center and bingo hall, and clubhouse/poolhall/dancebarn for the fraternal order of the Knights, all within a cigarette butt’s flick from each other, each built and patched with a cacophony of styles that spoke more of poverty and necessity than of a catholic (lower-case ‘c’) commitment to architectural folkways.
St. Bruno’s, or “The Catholics” as most locals called it, was itself hemmed-in by a non-denominational protestant pole-barn to the south, lower income housing to the west and north (modest even by the standards of the town), and a vast and varied cow pasture to the east. For reasons since lost to time (or perhaps best kept unspoken), the graveyard for St. Bruno’s was five miles out of town, hallowing the ground at the entrance to the second-oldest of the town’s collection of reclaimed strip mines, long since leeched of coal and now barely recognizable as one of the backfilled scars upon the land.
Pushing beyond the cemetery and into the thick century woods and overgrown hills behind it, down a little dirt road that itself was merely a sidepath from another dirt road, up a hill that had formed from the dispossessed earth of the coal mine, and behind a thick copse of gumball trees tucked in among the maples, if you knew where to look, you could find a small tin shack next to a small tin shed with a small tin outhouse beside it. Sister Bridget did not live in the small tin shack, but her youngest sister, Bernice, did, and always had, along with their oldest sister, Beatrice.
It was late on a barely summer Sunday as Sister Bridget pushed her bicycle up the last, steepest grade of Prestwood Hills, up to the simple threshold what was once her mother’s house, when the sun shone its final beam through the canopy, striking the tin roof of the outhouse and lighting the pale green gumballs from below, giving distinction to each bough of each tree and dappling the pine-covered ravine that lay beyond. Sister Bridget saw a shadow moving behind the two diamonds cut into the door and knew that she had Bernice cornered.
pon!pon!pon! she banged on the outhouse’s tin frame— “Bernie! I know you’re in there! It’s me!” — a groan of dissatisfaction came from within and she continued— “Bernie! You weren’t at services today, morning or afternoon. I’m beginning to fear you’ve developed a habit of this.”
“Oh, get on, Bie,” the voice inside grumbled against the metal walls, “I’m trying to have my afternoon’s peace in here.”
“You’ll have no peace at all if you fall short of His Grace, Bernie! — Now tell me why I didn’t see you in services today.”
“Will you jist let me finish in here, Sister sister? Then I’ll tell you all about it.” — Sister Bridget opened her mouth in protest, but with the rumble on the outhouse seat she snapped it shut — “Aww, would you jist get, Bie? I’ll come to the house when I’m done!”
And with that came another rumble from below, and Sister Bridget left her sister in the outhouse, walking the short trail that wound behind the shed, in front of the washtub and beside the pit, and around past the north-western door of shack, before letting herself in the front door.
“Aww, Bridget!” came an ancient voice from the small hut’s only corner, “You’ve come for supper!”
“Hello, Bea.” Bridget said, placing a small basket on the table, “Don’t get up, I’ll come to you.”
Bridget walked the nine paces from the kitchen table by the front door to her sister’s rocking chair in the far corner, gave her a perfunctory hug, and walked back.
“No supper for me, Bea. Just the biscuits I brought.” Bridget began to stoke the wood stove and ready a large iron kettle to boil.
“Oh, not jist biscuits, Bie!” Beatrice said, “At least have a taste of some butter and honey with them. And you might as well have some dandelion juice to wash it down?”
Bridget try to scold her sister with a look, but the playful joy on Beatrice’s paper-thin face was hard not to admire. The two starred each other down for only a second before Bridget found herself laughing—
“Well, maybe a nip of the juice… and just a taste of butter and honey.” Bridget said from under a grin, “You know what mom used to say— ”
“— a little sweet makes a little sweeter” they echoed each other, just as Bernice pounded in through the side door to add, “and the sweeter the meat, the sweeter they eat!”
“— but I’m not having any of your meat,” Bridget said. “Just the biscuits. You know I don’t eat like that anymore.”
“Eat like what?” Bernice said, harumphing down on the padded footstool between them, “you don’t know— maybe we cooked porkchops this time.”
“I walked around back, Little Bee,” Bridget said, uncorking the jug of dandelion wine and taking a hearty sip, “I know full well what you had for dinner.”
Beatrice and Bernice exchanged quick looks before breaking into a cackle— “but can you guess who?”
“I would rather not,” Bridget said, “I would rather talk about why you were not in services today.” She took another sip of wine before walking the jug over to Beatrice, while refusing to take her eyes of Bernice without getting an answer.
“Seems as you’re the only one of us still going to those services, Sister Bie,” Beatrice muttered before swallowing, sputtering wine out of the corners of her mouth, flowing down the creases in her cheek, rivulets running through the folds of her neck.
“That Father Seth gives me the willies,” Bernice followed, as she, too, grabbed the wine jug and chugged her full share in one swallow. “I passed him in town yesterday and I swear a cock screeched and a crow fell dead to my feet.”
“And I’m too old for religion, anyway” Beatrice croaked, and went back to counting the loops in her crochet chain.
“You,” Bridget said gently, towards Beatrice, “shouldn’t use your age as an excuse. If you aren’t too old for death, then you aren’t too old for salvation! And besides, Laura Jo and the kids were asking after you. It’s been so long since they saw their Aunt Bea!”
“Ugh, Laura Jo is such a bitch,” Bernice grumbled from the kitchen, her body straddling the rickety dining chair, one bare foot pulled up with her knees akimbo.
Bridget shot her a withering glance and was already striding towards her; before Bernice could react Bridget had grabbed the knife from the butter jar, blade in palm—”Get your knees down at the table!”—she cracked the heavy silver and oak handle against the top of Bernice’s pulled-up knee, loud enough to make the joints pop and startle a mouse digging for crumbs on the counter. “Daddy taught us better,” she commanded, ignoring the whelps of pain and protestations from her youngest sibling, “—and I won’t have you disrespecting Cousin Jo like that. She tries her hardest…” Bridget trailed off as all three sisters were reminded of their cousin, Laura Jo, and her particular brand of troubles.
“Poor dear,” said Beatrice, “it’s as if Red Jack hisself had marked her.”
“I guess I might could bake her some peanut butter divinity for next Friday.” Bernice said to no one, licking at the growing welt on her knee, and then added to no one’s shadow, “She’s still a bitch, though.”
A particularly wet pine log crackled and popped in the stove and an ember shot out of the grate, singeing another pock into the tattered rug beneath it. Bernice moved back over to the padded footstool to nurse her bruise. Beatrice rocked back with her crochet needle in hand, slipped a stitch, rocked forward again, and continued chaining the delicate fibers wound in balls at her side. Bridget walked to the sink, wiped off the butter and blood the knife had left in her palm, and pulled another jug of dandelion wine off the shelf.
“How’s Aunt Gert, anyway?” Bernice said, accepting the wine from Bridget as an offer of peace.
“Oh, you know, she’s as well-informed as ever.”
“Damn busybody is what she is!” Beatrice cracked, and jimmied her chin towards the wine, indicating that someone should bring it to her.
“Now, Bea,” Bridget trailed off, tipping the jug to the thinnest remnant of her sister’s lips.
“Now, Bea?!” Bernice balked, “I get a cracked knee and an invocation of Daddy for speaking out of turn about Jo— who not a one of us care for— but all she gets for talking after Aunt Gert— whom we all love and whose only misfortune was to marry our idiot brother— is a ‘Now, Bea’!? What kind of pisspoor Catholic charity is that?”
Bridget knew she’d been made and merely garumphed in response; she changed topics, “Speaking of Catholic charity, sister Bernice— Father Seth wanted me to ask you to volunteer to run this year’s confirmation tests, and you, sister Beatrice— would you volunteer to call Saturday bingo at the Summer picnic? Every act of devotion is an act of Grace!”
“Aww, dammit, Bie, I told you that Seth gives me the willies!”
“And I’m too old for religion, anyway!”
Long into the night, the sisters’ banter echoed in the crenellations of the tin walls, echoed in the spindles of Beatrice’s rocking chair, echoed in bare footfalls of Bridget’s pacing, echoed in the swings from excitement to melancholy in Bernice’s timbre. As they bickered and laughed and told tales of the townsfolk, the sun shuddered it’s last light far beyond the ravine, the katydids and junebugs came out, did their dance, and returned, the foxes and coyotes yelped, a woman’s choking scream let the denizens of the woods know a mountain lion was on the prowl, and the blood-red silver dollar moon began to rise.
Though they enjoyed the revelry of sisterhood, as the night drew on, it seemed to wear on each of them, Sister Bridget looking more gray and tired against the sunless dark outside, her sister Bernice somehow growing more somber and sober the more wine they drank, and their sister Beatrice waning from pale to pallid, her once-pearlescent hair now more like a dusty catch of cobwebs. Eventually, one of the lulls in the conversation lingered, and a silence filled the tiny shack.
Beatrice had crocheted through the night, turning her loose nest of threads into a beautiful silken wrap, and as she went to speak— to proclaim her accomplishment—, her throat merely rasped— a dry tongue against even drier lips. Bernice walked the last sip from their last jug of dandelion wine over to her, letting Sister Bridget rest awhile against the kitchen table.
The whistle of the kettle’s impossibly languid boil finally pierced the air and brought their quietude to a stop. Sister Bridget walked over to the stove, looking far, far older now than she had when she first arrived. Bernice, too, had taken the spit of a new maturity as the night wore on, accentuating the already striking resemblance between her and Bridget, Bridget and Beatrice, and even Beatrice and Bernice in their way.
As Bridget was collecting the enormous kettle and gathering various salts and herbs from the kitchen, Bernice helped Beatrice out of the rocker, and out of her clothes, and out of the side door of the shack, into the night, into her in her newly-knitted wrap, and into the large metal tub beside the shed and across from the pit, now glinting in the moonlight.
As Beatrice lay herself down in the washtub, she closed her eyes and murmured a soft prayer. A prayer to spirits and gods long forgotten, a prayer to the gouged and stripped earth, a prayer to the bones crushed beneath a coal bucket, a prayer to the tops of the hills that once were, before they were blasted off and robbed of their hard black blood, a prayer of sorrow and a prayer of vengeance, a prayer piety and a prayer of remorse.
Bridget came out of the house now, hunched and moving slower than she should, as if the weight of the kettle could topple her at any moment. Bernice, in deference to Bridget’s independence rather than indifferent to it, waited patiently as her sister inched towards her, handing her the old stone mortar filled with a melange of herbs, roots, salts, and seedlings.
Bridget looked old beyond old now, as she stood crooked and bent in the mockery of light reflecting down among them, and Bernice, too, had gone from mere maturity to a plump sagacity, a wisdom behind her eyes that hadn’t been there when the night started. And Beatrice looked even older still, slips of ancient skin fluttering like gossamer in the moonlight as she mouthed her prayer.
As Bernice was sprinkling the herbs and salts to anoint Beatrice, Bridget moved closer to the edge of the tub, and tried with all her might to tip the cast iron pot into the bath— “Aww, would you?” she said, gesturing to Bernice that she should take over — “Would you be willing to do the sloughing yourself tonight? I’m so tired.” And Bridget handed the kettle to Bernice, and as Bernice began mouthing the prayer in unison with Beatrice, she tipped the kettle into the bath, inundating their sister, boiling off her old skin and dust-wisp hair to reveal the youth and beauty beneath.
Too tired to be of any help, Bridget shuffled back inside and settled into the rocker where Beatrice had once sat. “I’m too old for religion, now, anyway,” she muttered, picking up the crochet needles and a fresh skein of thread, chaining three before slipping a stitch to join them.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this little tale, please share it with people! And drop me a line to let me know!
:heart emoji: -doug