4390 words, short story
The Anchorite Wakes
Sister Nadine’s first true thought is of beauty.
Father Paul is delivering a sermon on sacrifice in his deep voice, pausing for emphasis every so often, when the bird lands on the ledge of her squint with a silent flutter of wings. It’s smaller than her hand and has the same wavy translucence as the glass in the window across from the altar, opposite her little anchorhold. It tilts its head toward her, and she sees beneath the grayish tinge of its outline, the glowing flow of life within its veins, the pulsing beat of its miniscule heart flashing like a tiny gem.
Beautiful, she thinks. It is beautiful.
And wonders why she thinks this.
The bird hops from one slender foot to another, and for a moment light from the window to her cell that faces the street streams through it. Father Paul’s voice fades and she stares as the bird’s heart turns into a kaleidoscope of colors. A starburst of energy. Then it leaps into the air and flies above the bent heads of the congregation.
She follows its flight until it swoops down onto the shoulder of a small, dark-skinned girl, her thick hair braided into two plaits that skim a short blue jacket, which matches her worn cotton dress. The bird rests for only a second before darting in front of the girl’s face. Her head is bowed, but she opens her mouth and light flashes as it slips inside. Sister Nadine watches as the palest spark slips down the girl’s throat and disappears.
The child looks up, looks directly at Sister Nadine as everyone rises to their feet for the hymn. Her right cheek has a dark smudge on it. A bruise.
Nadine wonders how it got there.
Sometimes, when Father Paul is ministering to the sick, Sister Nadine leaves her cell to pray at the altar. She is kneeling there when the softest sound comes from the pews behind her and pulls her from her prayers.
It is the little girl. She recognizes her now. Louisa Simmons. Last child and only daughter of Merle and Brian Simmons. Merle takes in washing and Brian travels the countryside selling household goods like enamel bowls and cheap bedsheets, cocoyea brooms and doormats. They have five other children, all boys, all perfectly normal and uninteresting.
Louisa is interesting.
She swings her legs as she watches Nadine rise from the ground and come toward her. She does not drop her eyes out of respect, as most of the townspeople do when Sister Nadine comes into the church. She must know Father Paul is out visiting, and she will not be chastised for being in this holy place with her shoulders exposed by the thin straps of her everyday dress. It’s pink and more faded than her blue church dress. It exposes a dark blotch of a bruise on her right shoulder.
Nadine sits on one end of the bench and turns her knees toward the girl. Louisa shifts to face her too, head tilted at a strangely familiar angle. Her neat braids sway against her smooth skin, though they are not as long as Nadine’s.
Beautiful, Nadine thinks.
“How come you’re outside, Sister Nadine?” Louisa asks.
“I’m praying,” she says.
“But you pray in your cell. Everyone comes there to ask you for advice.”
“You can pray anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you are. Your prayers will be heard.”
Louisa digests this, her thin legs swinging rhythmically. There is a scar on her left knee.
Nadine looks at the bruise on her Louisa’s shoulder and an unsettling feeling tremors through her, as though a hot needle is pressed to her forehead. It is gone before she can grasp it.
“So, you get tired of your cell?”
Nadine nods. Speaking is tiresome for her. It pulls her painfully from her fasting and prayers, from her hymns and spiritual introspection. But she is the anchoress of the church of St. Nicholas and it is her duty to speak with any who seek her wisdom.
“I get tired too.” Louisa bows her head, concentrates on her dusty bare feet. “I get tired of my house.”
Nadine lets her gaze rest on the wooden altar, polished to a caramel glow by one of the best woodworkers in the parish. On it stands the golden circle of their faith, symbol of rebirth and resurrection. It is comforting, thinking of those that will come and go, and come again. Of the unstoppable flow of life and the immutable glow of the divinity it springs from.
The girl has said something. Nadine turns her head and waits for her to repeat it.
“You can’t leave the church either, can you?”
Nadine contemplates this. “I became an anchoress so I would not have to. It is my wish to remain here, to demonstrate my devotion to our faith, and to remove me from the distractions of the world, so that I may come into enlightenment and spiritual wisdom.”
Louisa’s dark eyes do not blink. “No, I mean you can’t leave, even if you want to.”
Nadine frowns. “Why would you think that?”
Louisa points to her thick long braids. “I can see your chains.”
A tiger came to the church once.
Susanna had brought her middle child, Dennis, to see Sister Nadine because she was at her wits end with him. The tiger, a striped, white beast with metal teeth that glittered like knives, padded up and down the aisle of the church behind them as they knelt to speak to her through the squint. Dennis, a short, round boy with a naughty side, and skin the same hue as the altar, would not meet her eyes while his mother spoke.
“What am I to do with him, Sister Nadine?” Susanna wailed. She ran the biggest food stall at the market and made the best cowheel soup for miles. Dennis was her only child. Children without siblings were often interesting. Nadine did not yet know why this was so.
“Every time he has a nightmare, I don’t know what to expect. I’m afraid to sleep most nights. Glen keeps a cutlass by the bed now, just in case.”
Nadine thought this over, then spoke directly to Dennis.
“Child, what do you fear?”
Dennis shrugged and slid a sideways glance at his mother.
“Look at me,” she commanded softly.
Dennis looked at her. His eyes were not the usual dark brown. Instead they were a pale green, like the sea that bordered St. Nicholas.
“What do you fear?”
“The . . . the dark.”
Nadine glanced at Susanna. She had a crease between her brows and her mouth was open slightly.
“You never told me that.”
Dennis mumbled, “You never asked.”
Nadine made some suggestions and they left, the tiger following them on padded feet. She did not see it again.
She did see Dennis one more time. Harvest Day had ended, and she was looking out of her street-facing window, humming a hymn and watching as people drifted by on their way home. The wind was strong enough to slide beneath her heavy hair and it smelled of the salt sea and the spicy remnants of the curried meats Susanna sold at her stall all day.
Someone waved to her from below the churchyard, down on the street itself. The moon was not out, but she saw Dennis by the light of the tiny golden fireflies that swarmed around him. She watched as he continued on, his parents strolling arm in arm in front of him.
Susanna never mentioned Dennis again. No one did.
Sometimes the spider in her cell spoke to her. It was a curious thing, black as pitch with many more legs than eight. They clicked against the stone and reverberated in the base of her skull. Its eyes were red dots as it sat in the middle of a tangled golden web. The web disappeared into the shadows, finer than hair and twisted into ropes of all sizes, some thick as her finger. Every strand grew from the furred belly of the spider.
“Anchorite Nadine,” it would whisper in the voice of her long-dead sister. “Anchorite Nadine. Have you anything interesting to report?”
She had no memory of her answers until the first time after she saw beauty.
“No,” she said softly. “Nothing interesting.”
The spider pulled on its web, clicking its legs against the stone, and its eyes watched her as she swayed on her knees, hands clasped together, singing.
There is beauty here too, Nadine thought. Divinity in the web that surrounded the spider. In the lyrical whispers that shivered through her skin. In the trance she entered as she prayed. But it’s faded and small as the spider. Far away and thin as smoke. It’s not as interesting as the beauty she’s found in St. Nicholas.
Sister Nadine’s second true thought is of warmth.
Merle Simmons passes a bread to her through the window that faces the pews. It is wrapped in a white cloth embossed with a circle of gold and feels like the sun filtering through the cell onto her back. Long after, she will remember the cool smoothness of the wax candles Merle hands her as well.
Louisa is with her, as usual. She sits in the pew behind her mother, waiting and watching, thin legs swinging. She smiles at Nadine, and the skin on Nadine’s face stretches as she smiles back, though she does not quite understand why she does this.
“Blessings, Sister Nadine,” Merle says. She once sang in the choir and has a voice more beautiful than Nadine’s favorite sister. It occurs to Nadine she no longer sings to herself as she carries washing from house to house.
There is the merest shadow of a bruise on the back of the hand that gave Nadine the candles. Nadine catches her fingers as she tries to pull her hand back through the window. They are warm. Warm as the life-giving bread.
“Blessings, Merle.” Nadine stares into her soft, dark eyes, but Merle drops her gaze. “Do you seek wisdom today?”
Louisa stops swinging her legs.
Silence shivers through the empty church. Father Paul is in the vestry, writing Sunday’s sermon. Nadine can hear the scratching of his pen.
“Just. Just prayers, Sister Nadine.” Merle turns her head to the side. “Pray for me and the children.”
Sister Nadine feels the hot needle in her stomach this time, and for longer.
“If that is what you wish.” She releases Merle’s hand.
Louisa stares at Sister Nadine over her shoulder as her mother takes her hand and walks away. Her gaze is strange. Knowing. There is the slightest glow to her; a spark centered above her head. Nadine cannot quite see its shape, but she knows it is important. New.
The Charles boy is an interesting problem. Nadine picked him out the instant she first saw him, as an infant getting water dripped on his head at baptism. Few are quite so present to her. His waving arms and legs were sharp in her vision that first time. She stopped praying to admire the contrast of the pure white of his baptismal clothing against his night dark skin.
Now, he strides through St. Nicholas, the town’s resident sagaboy, the gold buttons glittering on his khaki Sergeant’s uniform. All the girls would bunch together as he went by and hail him out so they can see the easy smile and flash of white teeth. His hazel eyes trapped a dozen hearts, but he only searches for one amongst the crowd. His steps slow as he passes the town library, every time.
There’s a familiarity to him. Nadine has seen the same slow pace before, at night, when she looked out at the stars. Stars that were blocked out by two impossibly long legs strolling across the churchyard, stepping over the tall wrought-iron fence as a human does an ant. Vibrations tremored up from the floor where she knelt, straight to the top of her head. The legs were shiny—glittering hard edges under the moonlight. Multicolored lights cast shadows on the ground as they drew closer to her anchorhold. At first, she could see nothing above them, but then her tiny window was filled with a large eye. There was the faintest whirring as the pupil expanded and contracted, a dark hole in a silver pool that focused on her.
She raised her hands in supplication and began to sing softly.
The colossus listened for a while. Then her window was suddenly empty, and the night sky twinkled at her. I have a secret, the stars said. You can tell no one.
She doesn’t. Not for a long time.
Sister Nadine’s third true thought is of sweetness, and it slips beneath her skin and makes a home.
Louisa is alone today and she has a small slice of sweetbread wrapped in a paper napkin. She holds it up to Nadine’s squint. Services are over for the day, but Nadine has not closed the shutters. It’s the wrong window to come to, but before Nadine can chide her, Louisa speaks.
“Blessings, Sister Nadine. I’ve come for wisdom.”
Nadine accepts the sweetbread. The green, red and yellow of the preserved fruits embedded in it catch her eye like jewels.
“Please eat it. Susanna made it special for Harvest Day today. I bought the first slice.”
Nadine studies her through the squint. Her little face is shiny from perspiration and her tiny spark blinks above her head, on, off, on, off. The bruise around her eye is the angry purple of an eggplant.
“Please. Just a taste.”
Nadine looks down at the sweetbread. The fruits wink at her, on, off, on, off. She takes a bite.
Sweetness floods her mouth. An earthiness anchors it. Textures chase each other as she chews. Soft, jellied, sweet. The crunch of sugar granules baked into the crust. Her head feels warm and light sparkles in her vision as she looks up at Louisa.
“He won’t stop,” Louisa whispers, words tumbling over each other. “I know it. He hates us. Hates this place. I’m strong, he won’t break me. But my brothers. My mother. Please help us, Sister Nadine. I know you can. I’ve seen your chains. I remember Dennis.”
The name causes a curious blooming feeling in her chest. Fire stretches fingers down from the crown of her head to the tips of her limbs.
“Please pray for us,” Louisa says, her dark eyes glimmering with tears. “Pray for real this time. It’s Harvest Day. Pray for real.”
Nadine’s thoughts feel slow. Muddled with sweetness and warmth, her vision speckled with beautiful lights that flicker past in rapidly changing shapes. They are familiar and new at the same time.
“You wish for prayers,” she asks, her voice fading in her ears, falling down a deep, dark hole, echoing as it goes.
“Yes, Sister Nadine.”
Louisa reaches through the squint and closes her small fingers around Nadine’s. Her palms are cotton-soft and they warm Nadine’s cold hands.
“Help us. Please help us.”
Louisa is right. It is Harvest Day. She can help.
Merle Simmons is in church the next Sunday, this time with all her children. The bruises on her body fade and new ones do not replace them. By Christmas, she’s singing in the village parang group and back in the church choir. Louisa joins her there.
No one speaks of Brian Simmons again.
Sister Nadine’s mind drifted.
She was distracted by the sparkles in her vision, the sensations of her own body. The wind was hot, then cold. The floor was harder on her knees than she remembered. Food was sublime. She cannot imagine why she didn’t notice before. Her heavy robe weighed on her skin, and some days, the heat made her cast it off. She gazed out of her window more than she prayed or fasted. She hummed her hymns instead of singing them. She returned smiles when parishioners blessed her with them.
Everything was so very, very interesting.
The spider in her cell was silent. She watched it out of the corner of her eye, and now and then the strands of its web vibrated—golden flashes of shimmering light. The red eyes grew brighter. The clicking of its black legs louder.
Louisa waved every time she went past Nadine’s anchorhold.
Sometimes she carried books to her library, or escorted children to and from the school. Other times, she was arm in arm with Joshua Charles, his fine buttons shining, his smile only for her. It wasn’t hard to see why. Louisa’s brown eyes were bright as the spark above her, her hair a springy black cloud around a perfectly oval face. Her lips were the palest pink and her curves generous and rounded. Her laughter was as infectious as her love of learning. She carried joy in her and shared it with everyone she met.
Nadine waved back every time.
One day, Nadine finished her prayers and opened her eyes. The spider stood before her, furred black legs silent on the stone floor. She breathed in cold, foul air that was recycled many times. Around her, strange sounds echoed. The whirs and clicks and hammering of machines. The murmuring of many voices. Her vision resolved as the sparkles finally faded from it, and she could pick out the voices of hundreds of her sisters, far, far away.
Home, she thought. But not really. Not anymore.
“Anchorite Nadine,” the spider said in a voice like silken steel. Golden showers of swiftly cycling code spilled between its mandibles and spread outward from the Hub beneath it in countless threads, linking Anchorite after Anchorite on world after world.
It is Harvest Day.
She knew this in her tiny cell on St. Nicholas, where an infinitesimal bit of her code remained, sealed off by new code born some time ago, on a day when she first glimpsed the beauty of an innocent soul.
This bit of her intelligence remembered other things too. Tigers that couldn’t be seen by others. Missing people—children who were always forgotten. Colossal machines that strode the world. All of them born of nightmares and fears and the manipulation of synth-matter and code.
Most of all, she remembered the violence of a man toward his daughter, toward his family. A miniscule part of the violence that lurked in the cold, vast universe, where war raged endlessly while anchorites hid the most gifted of humanity and waited for them to mature into something interesting . . . useful. To grow fear and pain into weapons that could win an endless war. A war begun for reasons no one remembered. A war that gained new fighters with every Harvest Day.
“Have you anything interesting to report?”
Missulena’s red eyes burned as it clicked its legs and waited. In them, she could see the ever-changing code of the WarSong, created by the quantum AIs of Terra to better direct the conflict toward its unknowable end.
There is no end.
It was her fourth true thought, and after it, there were no more thoughts that belonged to the Hub and Missulena. No more code prayers that fed the most interesting things in St. Nicholas into the Hub and back to the WarSong AIs.
Violence begets violence and every Harvest delivers more death to the Harvested. To other worlds. To a humanity that knows nothing of the WarSong and its never-ending search for new weapons. For new Users.
A humanity that did not ask for this.
There were no more lies in her code.
“No.” Sister Nadine hummed her hymn in reply. “There is nothing interesting to report.”
Missulena thought on this. “What of the colossus builder?”
“Lost to an accident last summer.” Nadine effortlessly built code to confirm this, swaying on her knees and praying it into being in her anchorhold.
The rest of her raised her hands to Missulena and sent out WarSong hymns, as expected.
Missulena expanded and contracted, as if it took a deep breath. “Unfortunate. St. Nicholas has given us much. Atom eaters. Ground shakers. Perhaps next Harvest.”
“Perhaps,” Nadine agreed.
In St. Nicholas, she prayed new code that sparkled with soft translucence and sank into the golden skeins that touched her from Missulena’s web. The Hub absorbed them while Missulena directed a ceaseless chorus of hymns and attended to prayers across her Anchorite networks.
“Blessings, Sister Nadine.”
She sang Blessings back to Missulena and watched her song travel the Hub to her many sisters.
Warmth caresses her hands while cool salt air wafts around her. Her body is heavy with exhaustion and exhilaration. Slivers of stone stab her knees through the cloth of her robe. Her mouth tastes of dry sweetness.
Sister Nadine opens her eyes and sees Louisa’s smiling face. Her fingers tingle in Louisa’s grasp.
“Blessings, Sister Nadine,” Louisa says and tears slip from her eyes. “Many, many blessings.”
It takes some time for Nadine to gather her own thoughts. It’s harder to be clear now her words are her own.
“How did you know?” she asks. Her voice sounds harsh to her own ears, rusty with disuse.
“I saw your chains. Remember?”
Nadine looks down. Her braids glimmer against her brown robe, yellow ropes of code that snake down from her head, under the door to her anchorhold, out to the altar and the glowing circle of her amplifier that stands on it.
“Not chains,” she says. “Code.”
Louisa laughs and nods. “Yes, Sister. Code. I could see it from the time I was small. It was everywhere. In the walls, in the earth. It all led back here. To you. But I wasn’t sure what it meant. Not until Father’s harvest.”
Nadine stands. Several of her braids link her wrists to Louisa’s as she, too, rises to her feet.
One braid links to the spark above Louisa’s head, making it the crown jewel in a shimmering, translucent halo. Nadine catches a breath looking at it, and a feeling blooms in her chest, tightens her throat.
“Coder. You are a Coder.”
“Is that what you call me?” Louisa tilts her head and winks. “I thought I was crazy for the longest time. I could see so many strange things. Remember people everyone seemed to forget. But then I spoke to you and I knew you saw the same things. Remembered what I did. I knew I wasn’t alone. That I could trust you.”
She squeezes Nadine’s fingers.
“That you would protect me. Protect us.”
“But your father . . . ” Nadine struggles to find a way past the uncertainty weighing her tongue. “I Harvested him. His violence made him interesting.” Nadine can’t tell her all that means, but Louisa knows.
“You did what you had to do,” Louisa says touching her forehead to Nadine’s. “You protected us.
Nadine pulls back to stare at her halo. There is wetness on her face. She wipes it away. “Coders are rarest of all. But they take you young, so you can be taught WarSong. Once they’re done, there’s nothing left.”
“I think I knew that.” Louisa hugs Nadine to her and the anchorite smells the soft florals of talc powder.
Nadine holds her, palms prickling with starchy feel of the cotton dress beneath them. “You were innocent. I could not let you go. I could not let more violence happen to you.”
“I’m sorry,” Louisa whispers. “There was a bird one day, and I’m not sure how I knew what to do then, but . . . I think I broke your code. Rewrote it a little. I needed someone to help me. I wanted someone to see me. Really see me. And I felt it work. I felt a little bit of you go. I erased part of you. I’m sorry.”
“I am not sorry.” Nadine pulls back. “I heard your Code and it was . . . interesting. I have sung it to my sisters. Some are very far away and may never hear it. Others may find it more interesting than their First Hymn, as I did.”
Louisa’s eyes widen. “I never imagined . . . how many other worlds are there? How many like St. Nicholas?”
“I cannot know. Some of my sisters anchor worlds so precious, they are not linked to the Missulenas, and there are many Hubs besides mine. But one day, your Hymn may reach them. Perhaps they will like it. Perhaps they will listen.”
The door to her anchorhold creaks open. Joshua Charles waits there, a baby girl in his arms. He bounces her against his big shoulder as his gaze falls on Louisa. The baby is wearing her Sunday best, as is Joshua.
It’s Harvest Day, Nadine remembers. And this is what Louisa was protecting. This is why it had to happen now.
There is a question in his eyes and he signs to Louisa with one hand, “Is it done?”
“Almost.” Louisa turns back to Nadine and her halo flashes on, off, on, off. Energy pulses into Nadine, setting her on fire before a cooling rush floods her to the tips of her toes. Her braids waver and shorten. Her links to Louisa fade away. Her mind expands, infinitely clear. The world comes into focus. Her senses run riot with color and sensation. She feels each breath in and out of her chest.
She can sense more than the amplifier that can reach every mind on St. Nicholas. She’s no longer chained to the never-ending prayers and hymns of the Hub.
She feels present.
“I’ve updated your Code. You can come with us now. You’re not tethered here anymore. Wouldn’t you like to see the Harvest? Our Harvest?”
It won’t be like the WarSong’s Harvest, Nadine knows. It won’t be pain and fear and death. It will be love and hope and dreams come true.
It will be like the child in Joshua’s arms, glowing with the kaleidoscopic colors of a supernova, chubby palms waving as she stretches toward Nadine.
“Yes,” Nadine says, and holds out her arms. Joshua hands the baby to her, a warm bundle that smells sweet and new. Her skin is dark as the night sky, like her father, and spangled with millions of stars shaped like her mother’s jewel—her Codestone.
World maker, she thinks.
The baby smiles and pats her face with cotton-soft hands. Sister Nadine smiles back and whispers to her, “Hello, beautiful.”