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Hanna was born and raised southern Baptist, but she wanted to be a nun. Her first habit consisted of a black cloth that she tied around her head for a coif, and a plastic crucifix glued to a heart necklace that she’d been given for Christmas. She wore the pieces of her homemade habit in her yard and tried to make Ebbie Stevens confess her sins, but Ebbie told Hanna that she was of the devil and ran home to her mother. Ebbie’s mother never allowed her to play with Hanna again.
The next summer Hanna added a wimple and cut up her brother’s old graduation gown to make a complete habit. When her mother went to the grocery store, Hanna accompanied her. She blessed the fruits, but only the exotic ones like dragon fruit and kiwis because she was sure they had been harvested in heathen lands. Apples, oranges, and bananas were ignored. Shoppers stared at the girl making the sign of the cross over the bins. The Assistant Manager considered asking her to leave the store, but he could not think of a valid reason to kick out a mumbling little girl in a “witch costume.”
Hanna’s mother, Kari, received daily frantic phone calls from her own mother asking when Hanna was going to stop with the “cult” stuff. “Catholicism is not a cult, Mom,” said Kari, watching Hanna from her kitchen window. Hanna was gathering acorns to string together as rosary beads.
“But it’s not natural,” said Hanna’s grandmother. “This behavior can’t be good for a ten-year-old.”
“Neither are Moonpies for a seventy-four-year-old, but you eat at least three a day.”
Kari heard a noisy exhale on the other end of the phone.
“I’m sure her father is behind this. He was always exposing her to crazy ideas. I’d talk to the judge about it if I were you. You said you despised having to take the kids to meet him for those weekend visits.”
“I hate the four-hour drive is all, but I’m not going to tell Hanna she can’t see her dad. And besides, I don’t think David has anything to do with this. He’s an atheist.”
“All the more reason for him to fill her head with dangerous ideas about that Catholic religion. I’m afraid she’s becoming some kind of cult fanatic,” said Kari’s mother.
“It’s a phase, Mother. She’ll get past it,” said Kari, but she was already thinking of taking Hanna to a child psychologist.
“When? This has been going on for months. She should be back in the real church, the Baptist one.”
“I’ve got to go. It’s almost time for yoga,” said Kari.
“That’s another thing we need to talk about,” said Hanna’s grandmother, lowering her voice. “I’ve been reading about that online. Did you know one of the names for a position is ‘downward facing dog’? It’s downright vulgar.”
Kari clicked her cell shut without saying goodbye.
“Mother?” Hanna stood in the doorway.
Kari jumped at her voice. “Oh honey, I didn’t know you were there.”
“Why did you say Daddy was an atheist?” Hanna’s wimple had fallen a little sideways and Kari resisted the temptation to reach down and straighten it.
“Well, honey, because he is an atheist. He told us that, remember? When he lived with me and your little brother.” She let the rest of it hang. Before the divorce. Before the drug arrest. Before he moved 300 miles away.
“I know he said that, but he told me he wasn’t an atheist anymore.”
“When did he say that?” Kari asked.
“Last Saturday. And he said I could be a nun if I wanted.” With that, Hanna turned and disappeared into her bedroom. In a few minutes, Kari could hear her saying in a low voice to “Rise! Rise up and walk!” Kari peeked through the half-open door and saw that Hanna had lined up three stuffed animals on the edge of her bed and was holding her hands over them in a kind of double-handed Nazi salute as she chanted the words.
This was how Kari described it to Dr. Kohanski the following Thursday at their first family counseling session. Kari had talked to the doctor during the opening of the session with David, via Skype, and then she left Hanna with the doctor and went to the waiting area.
A young mother sitting on a sofa across from Kari breastfed her infant and held a Parent magazine with her free hand. She looked up and smiled at Kari. The woman’s hair was stunningly blonde and glossy and had been straightened so severely it hung like liquid dripping over her shoulders. Kari tried not to stare. “My son’s having sharing issues,” the blonde finally said. “Why are you here?”
Kari thought a moment. “My daughter’s become a Catholic.”
On Tuesday evening, Hanna sat in front of the screen watching a Joel Osteen Ministries’ Night of Hope television special. Her three-year-old brother, Derek, lolled next to her on the rug and kicked playfully at the dog’s feet. Hanna spun her rosary beads on her right hand and said to her grandmother and grandfather sitting behind her, “Their prayer link is down. The email says prayers have ‘failed permanently.’”
“Why land sakes,” said the grandmother, “I’ve never heard of such.”
“We used to put our hands on the TV when Brother Swaggart was praying,” said her grandfather, Joe. “He said you could feel God’s power right through the TV if somebody was praying.”
“Oh Joe, that’s so old-fashioned,” said Grandmother. “Oh, would you look at that!” She pointed down at her grandson who was fingering her cell phone.
“Tweet my pray. Tweet my pray,” the boy said, speaking into the phone.
“Isn’t that adorable?” said Grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell Kari.” She proceeded to take the cell from the child’s hand but he began to scream.
“He hasn’t been baptized, you know,” said Hanna, her face serious and gray underneath her black wimple.
“He’s just a baby,” said her grandmother, reaching for the boy’s hands and nuzzling a fat fist against her lips.
“If he died tomorrow he’d burn in hell,” said Hanna.
“Hanna, that’s a terrible thing to say!”
“It’s not my decision. I read it.”
“In the Bible?” asked her grandmother.
“He needs to be baptized properly,” said Hanna.
“You just let us worry about that.” Her grandmother held her little brother so tightly against her chest he began to squirm to get down again. Hanna eyed him carefully and stood up, the black cloth of her wimple hanging majestically around her face. Behind her, Joel Osteen waved his hands and looked heavenward as he spoke. A spotlight shined from the rafters of the coliseum where he preached to a crowd of fifteen thousand people. Hanna turned to the TV and raised her head while keeping her eyes on Osteen. “He’s going to burn in hell, too, if he doesn’t repent.” With that, she exited the room, the black cloth flowing behind her as she went.
On the next trip to the counseling session, Hanna went in alone while Kari sat with Derek in the waiting area. Hanna had added a full black gown to her habit. It covered everything except her pink sandals.
“I heard you baptized your brother this week,” said Dr. Kohanski.
“I didn’t want him to burn in hell.”
“I don’t think anyone wants that. How did you feel while you were doing it?”
“I don’t know. Wet, maybe. He kept splashing water on me. We did it in the bathtub,” said Hanna.
“So, tell me, Hanna.”
“It’s Sister Hanna now.”
“I see,” said Dr. Kohanski, nodding his head. “Sister Hanna, you were raised Baptist according to your mother. How did you learn about Catholicism?”
Hanna shook her head, her black cloth rustling. “It’s just something I’ve thought about for a long time. To become a nun.”
“Do you think God told you to do this? To be a nun.”
Hanna folded her arms over her chest, and she reached up with one hand to fondle her crucifix. “Maybe. I don’t remember what it was like not to want to be a nun, now that I think about it.”
“You know, to become a nun, you have to go through years of training with other candidates. You’d have to convert to Catholicism, too.”
“Shouldn’t I be talking to a priest about this?” asked Hanna.
“Right now you’re talking to me,” said Dr. Kohanski, shifting straighter in his seat.
“When you decided you wanted to be a doctor, did your mom make you talk to a therapist?”
Dr. Kohanski gave a little laugh. “No, she didn’t.”
Hanna cocked her head to the right and gripped her crucifix in her fist.
When school began that fall, Hanna insisted on going the first day head-to-toe, full-on nun. No words of dissuasion from Kari made any difference, and neither did the note from the school counselor pointing out the school policy prohibiting students from wearing “costumes” to school unless it was approved and for an official school function. Protestations on the part of religious freedom made no difference in light of the fact that Hanna was neither Catholic nor a novice. Hanna was expelled by the end of the first week after she insisted on casting demons out of a Latino boy named Augusto who’d teased her about walking on water. By the time Kari arrived to pick her up, Hanna’s new nickname was Sister Creepy.
Kari, with David’s long-distance consent, had little choice but to remove her from public school and enroll her at St. Edena’s Catholic School for Girls where the new nickname followed her via Instagram and Twitter.
St. Edena’s was the renovated former home, horse barn turned gymnasium, and ten-acre lake of a rich widow who died the year crinoline slips went out of style. Her will had stipulated that her property be turned into a school to train up the town’s most promising future brides-to-be of the town’s most promising future businessmen-to-be. The faculty consisted of Sisters from the nearby Our Lady of Wounded Sorrow. Sister Mary Tommy, referred to behind her back as Sister Oddbot, informed Hanna within ten minutes of meeting her that her nun attire was not acceptable and that she would dress in the requisite navy blue St. Edena’s jacket over a crisp white collared blouse with a knife-pleated navy, gray, and white plaid skirt not to rise higher than two inches above the top of the knee cap. Hanna requested that hers be lowered two inches below it. She was thoroughly disappointed to learn that the Sisters of St. Edena followed a progressive nun’s dress code and did not sport the full, traditional black garb. Each afternoon when she returned home she donned her habit, so Kari stopped taking her to grocery store. For the most part, Hanna kept her focus on becoming a nun hidden from the world outside of her school and home life. Her mother bit her lip but said nothing when she discovered that Hanna had stained the faces of most of her stuffed animals by dipping their faces into a pewter cup filled with cranberry juice communion “wine.” Kari took the real wine, the Cabernet she had been saving for Thanksgiving, and nursed it until she fell fast asleep on the sofa.
Each morning Hanna showed up in Sister Mary Tommy’s sixth-grade classroom ten minutes before the other girls and bided her time in her assigned seat studying the catechism. “Everybody knows you’re not really Catholic,” said Nadine, a chubby, dark-skinned girl with eyelashes so thick they tangled whenever she blinked.
“I’m converting,” Hanna said, without looking up from her book.
“You can’t just go around dressed up like a nun either. Everybody knows you’re not one.” Nadine slid into her seat in front of Hanna.
“I never said I was a nun,” said Hanna, finally looking up. “And what’s so weird about wanting to be a nun. This place is full of them.”
“Why? Why would you want to be like Sister Oddbot?” Nadine lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think it’s crazy to want to be a nun whether you’re Catholic or not.”
“Half the boys I know want to be rappers, body builders, or wrestlers. Nobody thinks that’s crazy,” said Hanna.
“I don’t think any of those boys take their aspirations as seriously as you take yours.” Sister Mary Tommy’s appearance behind Hanna startled them both. “And yes, I suppose a young lady does have to be a little bit crazy to open one’s self up to such a calling.” She smiled and let her eyes fall on Hanna a moment before proceeding to her desk.
Several of the other girls began drifting into the classroom and taking their seats around Nadine and Hanna. “So,” Nadine whispered, “I heard you were kicked out of your old school.”
“Expelled,” said Hanna.
“Same thing,” said a girl with blonde hair and pink lipstick.
Hanna put her book down and closed it with a flourish of her hand. “I’ll tell you what happened, but it doesn’t leave this room.” Three girls had gathered round and they all looked over their shoulder at Sister Mary Tommy who was busy writing on the White Board.
“We’ve got time.” Nadine tossed her hair and leaned an arm over the back of her desk.
“It happened in the restroom,” Hanna began. “The girls’ restroom. There were—” Hanna silently counted. “There were three of them. They told me it couldn’t be done. That it wasn’t real and I was lying, but I knew the truth, so we closed the door to the restroom and sealed it shut.”
“With what? What’d you seal it with?” a blonde girl blurted out. Sister Mary Tommy glanced up and then returned her attention to her papers.
“We found some stuff in the closet. Some chemicals. And paper towels. Now let me finish,” said Hanna. “Anyway, after we sealed the door shut we turned on all the water in the sinks. The water started rising. It got up to our ankles and they just laughed, but I kept quiet. When the water got up to our knees they were still laughing except for this one girl. She started getting scared. When the water got to our waists they weren’t laughing anymore. I was just waiting. And in just a few minutes the water was up to our chins and those girls were starting to cry and try to grab onto stuff because not one of them knew how to swim. And that was when I did it. I raised my hands up in the air, and I rose above that water until my shoes were touching the top. Those girls looked up at me and started screaming because they were sure they were going to drown.”
“And did they?” whispered a moon-faced Asian girl named Pan.
“No. Right about then the windows busted and all the water flowed right out.”
“I don’t believe a word of that stupid story,” said Nadine.
“It’s all about faith,” said Hanna. “Why don’t you come down to the lake after school and I’ll show you?” Hanna gave a one-sided smile and the girls all eyed one another. “Maybe you can do it, too.”
Sister Mary put her pen down, folded her arms, and leaned back in chair a moment before calling the class to begin.
Months of low rainfall had left the lake algae-covered, smelly, and several feet below its usual water level. Its banks were thick with dead and dying clumps of grass sucking up the earth’s gummy moisture. Decades earlier the lake had been a prime spot for boating, swimming, and Sunday picnics for the families of St. Edena students. Many a teenaged boy had shown off his boating prowess and physique by rowing a pretty, young St. Edena alumnus across its blue waters. But the grounds around the lake were no longer meticulously landscaped, and the long, white pier where dozens of rowboats were once docked had sunk below the surface. A long, thick cluster of yellow bell bushes lined the shore where the pier had once extended over the water. In the lake’s glory years, the bushes were pruned into a disciplined line like a row of girls in yellow Sunday dresses; their aging, sagging branches now protected rabbits and other small rodents underneath.
Nadine and two of her friends showed up first, the short girl named Pan and another girl with streaks of blue in her hair. Within minutes, Hanna could be heard whistling from the right side of the lake. “What are you doing over there?” called Nadine.
“Been sitting there waiting for you,” Hanna said, pointing over her shoulder at a copse of trees.
“This water looks nasty,” said Pan, grimacing at its bright green, mottled surface.
“It’s not like we’re going swimming in it,” countered Hanna. She stopped a few yards away, put her hands on her hips, and stared out over its still surface. There was no sound, not even frogs. The water appeared dead, like a lake she imagined would be in hell. Interspersed over the surface were blobs of brown growths and rocks that jutted up from the lake’s shallow bottom. Way out in the center was yellowish-brown water where the algae had not yet grown solidly across the surface. But the shoreline was edged in amoeba-like shapes of bright green algae, like a map of countries lying over the water. Hanna took a step toward to the edge, shut her eyes, and tipped her face upward toward the bright afternoon sun. Nadine and the other girls watched her a moment, and then Nadine shouted, “Nobody here is fooled by you, Sister Creepy!”
“Yeah,” said the girl with blue streaks in her hair, “nobody…” But her words trailed off and she began chewing her nails.
Hanna smiled, but did not open her eyes. The other girls focused on her, waiting. Nearly a minute ticked by, and Hanna could feel the sweat beading on the back of her neck. She wished she had brought her wimple. There was something about wearing the wimple that made her feel invincible, like she was more than a ten-year-old girl, more than Sister Creepy.
“Hanna, go ahead.” Sister Mary Tommy stood near the center of the lake with just the toes of her black pumps covered in green algae. The water around her was unstirred, as if she had appeared there whole, a black visage hovering over an emerald surface. Nadine sucked a scream into her mouth, turned, and ran back toward the school. The blue-haired girl gasped and quickly followed with Pan running close at her heels. Sister Mary Tommy watched them go and then held out a hand to Hanna. “You really want to walk on water? It’s not magic. Have a little faith.” she asked. “Sometimes it’s about first stepping into the muck.”
Hanna fainted without seeing that underneath the algae around Sister Mary Tommy’s feet were the remains of an overturned fiberglass boat.
Cathy Adams’ latest novel, A Body’s Just as Dead, was published by SFK Press. Her writing has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. She is a short story writer with publications in The Saturday Evening Post, Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Barely South, Five on the Fifth, Southern Pacific Review, and 46 other journals from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington. She lives and writes in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, Julian Jackson.