My gift killed autumn before it killed God.
In the woods behind the abbey, the sugar maples are a lace of rubies and the elms a scatter of gold, as if a rainbow has shattered in the chill and snagged its icy chips in the branches. I do not know what has happened. But the woods are more beautiful now than they were last week, when I walked beneath them as if beneath a green sea.
“It’s fall,” says Sister Fidea, blankly, when I put this question to her as we stand hanging rosaries about the little grotto in which Our Lady stands with white, depthless eyes. “The leaves change in fall. Are you feeling all right, Sister?”
I smile. Up from my chest like a red flower, my gift gathers in my throat and eyes. “Just because the leaves have changed in fall before,” I ask, feeling the power on my tongue, “does that mean that now they must?”
“But—” says Sister Fidea. Then her filmy eyes blink once or twice, and she turns from Our Lady to the shining trees. “Oh, how colourful the leaves are. I wonder what has happened?”
Ensconced in her grotto like a white fungus, Our Lady looks on me and smiles.
When I first received my gift I practised only on myself, for I thought, mistakenly, that I practised on the whole world.
The gift arrived in a telegram. I had been at our remote abbey for four years, and Isaac had been on the Western Front for two. But Quebec is far from France, and I, Isaac’s only sister, no longer went by her birth name. The telegram was already a year old when it found me, and the information it held a year older still. It was April, when the crocuses were just beginning to gasp out of the thawing soil, when I knew that in March, and February, and further back, through the previous May and April, Isaac, not yet nineteen, had lain like a crushed seed beneath the mud in the long howl of forest between Laon and Verdun.
“It is because he is God’s child, and God has taken him home,” our Abbess said, placing her hand on my shoulder. “For the Lord, even if it be mysterious, everything has a cause.”
Later, alone in my room, I raised my eyes to the sky that hung like a ragged bandage beyond my window and said, “No. No, it does not.”
And it did not.
Later that night, during vespers, as we sang the Office of the Dead, Our Lady hung above us in cold benediction, her white face a bloodless moon. “Qui erant in poenis,” we sang, “advenisti redemptor noster.” I met her eyes flat as a corpse’s and sought there what cause could have convinced her to give her Son to the cross, to relinquish her love to a ragdoll of blood and bruises—what proof, what promise that an adamantine lily might someday come to her in her crazy grief and swear that it had blossomed from that crushed bulb. “There was no reason for your sacrifice,” I whispered to her. “No cause.”
And there was none.
Our Lady smiled at me, and I felt the gift suddenly in my blood like infinite needles of moonlight.
Those first days were sublime. I thought I had unknit the world’s bones from its flesh; I thought I had taken revenge. Standing alone before Our Lady’s grotto with the trees flung about me like dyed scarves, I asked what cause had shocked them to colour, and saw that reason slung before me, a golden thread—a bright braid of whys anchored so far back in memory I could not see its moor. Laughing, I flicked open the gift like a switchblade. Just because the leaves had changed before did not mean they did so now, for the same—or for any—reason. The golden wire snapped, and the leaves, mysteriously, fell. “No cause,” I smiled as the trees flaked down red-gold rust. “No cause.”
The next morning before terce I stood in my room with the open Scripture, slicing my razor through the conjunctions in John and feeling the earth shudder as its golden ligaments snapped: for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish… Later, tending the abbey garden, I laughed at the leaf-blown sky and thought of our Lord’s body, now as unrisen as Isaac’s. I watched the Sisters, who must not have realized what I’d done, send up prayers to be drowned like torches in the no-man’s-land of heaven. God’s absence, like autumn’s, like my brother’s, was mourned by no one.
So I yearned to test my gift on tangibles. Few physical causes were as clear as the catechism, whose logic stretched out before me as taut and frangible as fishwire. But by Our Lady’s grace, the next day a regiment beached itself on the shores of the abbey. The same recruiter who had first snared Isaac had brought this month’s sacrifices to be blessed. They stood where he had stood, grinning as he tried to catch my eye beneath my habit, while his regiment was unstrung from a Model T wagon like a line of hooked perch. I remembered how he had shivered, tall for his sixteen years, yet with the eyes of the child I had last seen two years ago—the child who had toppled his toy soldiers laughing, and lied about his age. Leaning a heavy rifle against his shoulder, he had winked as the recruiter began hailing sacrifice to King and Commonwealth, and throughout the grim speech had kept up his smile even as it, and the rifle, grew too heavy. And as the speech had ended and Isaac turned to leave—I was not allowed to speak to him—he had saluted and held this smile aloft, like a flag, with all the strength of his young muscles.
Now, as the recruiter spoke, I ached to snap the elastic in his heart and watch him slop over like a sackgut of blood. But I did not want to draw attention. So I stood silent, again, as the boys were blessed for graves whose chlorine mouths yawned a thousand miles away.
But that Model T! As the condemned boys piled into the wagon behind it and the recruiter bent down to wind the crank, suddenly I saw, slung between crankshaft and ignition, a straight, bright thread of gold—the cause linking the two together. A perfect test for my gift: why, I asked, need one mechanism determine the other? What reason was there, save that I had seen motors cranked before?
My gift switched through the golden thread.
The engine kicked and sputtered and, roaring, took the boys away.
I gasped. How had the auto moved? That dead limb before the grill did nothing; how had the engine started? I had seen nothing to suggest the iron corpse could awaken—though I remembered, strangely, believing it could not a second ago.
It was then I realized that my gift touched people, not things, and that the golden threads beading events together were spun not by the world, but by the mind.
So far I must have snapped only my own. Which meant, swaddled in their warp of causality, the Sisters still believed—in God and crankshafts and sacrifice, and the shining rationality of a million dead boys in mud.
Beneath my habit, my teeth set, I mouthed No cause like a rosary as we filed back towards our rooms. No cause, Isaac. No cause. Behind us, the Model T’s staccato rifle pocked the sky.
After this I worked individually, like a sniper, or Christ choosing disciples. My clarity of purpose sighted my gift like a shell in a straight barrel: I fought for Isaac, and Our Lady, and for every causeless grief this inscrutable world sought to bury in its potter’s field of sorrows. Still, I began small, unsure of which thread in another’s knot of whys might be fatal. Sister Fidea’s autumn was the first. Other threads, thicker, follow.
“Just because the apple falls when I drop it this time, does that mean it must fall next time?”
“Just because we are at war again, does that mean we should be?”
“What proof do you have that the sun will rise tomorrow?”
“What if it’s only habit that makes you think so?”
The strength of my gift is startling. I ask questions every Sister has asked a thousand times before taking the veil, and has answered with as much conviction as our vows require. And yet, mysteriously, inevitably, the golden threads snap. Though our abbey is young—our novitiate newly filled with mothers, sisters, widows—it is still hard to believe that the faiths binding reality together are so fragile.
“How can the death of one man compensate for the sins of the world?”
“Why does the Lord let good prayers go unanswered?”
Perhaps it is not my gift at all, I muse as I watch the postulants’ eyes sink in their faces. Perhaps our age is just ready to disbelieve.
“Does God let the war go on because He can’t stop it—or because He doesn’t care to?”
Far across the ocean, the guns thunder.
Each fallen cause I offer to Our Lady as tribute, a substitution for her senseless sacrifice. I lay Sister Fidea’s leaves before her grotto like a saucer of blood, and pour across her feet like steaming milk the colourless trusts of the acolytes. She laps their shrieks as they bumble across the abbey, having forgotten why fire lights or bread rises. But these are merely practice; our Lady craves fuller fare.
I find Sister Spera before the bye-altar, shielding a lit votive in her fingers. Two years ago when Isaac rode away, she stood beside me, shivering, eyes fixed on the ground.
“Ah, Sister, why are you placing that candle?”
She looks furtively at the corner of the altar where a damp letter rests, knit to her candle by a gold filigree only I can see.
“This is for my cousin David, with the Halifax regiment,” she says. “He shipped with Isaac, Sister. He…does not believe as he should.”
Somewhere in my memory, Isaac strains to hoist his heavy rifle, uphold his heavy smile. My gift unswallows in my throat. “Praying for an atheist!” I say softly, pressing my knife against the gossamer binding letter to candle. “How good of you, Sister. But does lighting a candle ensure David’s safety?”
Her young brows shudder. “Why no, of course not. Not ensure.” She places the votive on the bye-altar, and, retrieving the letter, gazes for a moment at the flickering lights. There is a tiny cry, the sound of golden thread snapping. “Never ensure. That’s not…that’s not how prayer works.”
But in her eyes the candle gutters, and when the telegram arrives a month later, brief as they all are, she reads it with unlit eyes and does not list David’s name on the prayer-rolls. Standing alone before the bye-altar, I try to imagine Isaac’s smile at my vengeance, but for some reason I can no longer see it—only the sun on his rifle as the wagon rolls away. “No cause,” I murmur like amen.
In the grotto, Our Lady licks Sister Spera’s grief from her teeth. More.
As I am leaving the bye-altar, I notice an acolyte perched in a pew, polishing a set of silver candlesticks. He is about five, and as I pass him he chirps, “God save you, Sister!” with a grin so familiar I nearly trip, though I can’t quite place it. Shaking my head, I smile back and walk on—but then, in the woods, Our Lady looks up sharply.
Shivering, I return to the boy. In a tumble of robes he leaps to his feet. “God will save me, little brother?” I ask, looking down at him, my smile hard as plaster.
He nods, shaking his whole body. “Yes, Sister, and our soldurs!” He swings a candlestick like a bayonet. “Save’m from the Hun!” Around his body a corona pulses, golden as sun-soaked cotton, a syrupy certainty through which his candle-sword stirs like a long spoon, like a gun in gas.
Choking, I draw my gift from my throat. “Why will God save our soldiers, little brother?” I whisper, and, setting my teeth, bring the blade down on his golden halo. There is no resistance. My gift slips through the gold, a knife in sunlight, while the boy continues jousting unperturbed. Startled, I stab again at the boy, and again, but it is still the same. There are no fibres to his belief, no thready knots of causality—just a gentle sunny fog, reasonless, inviolate. I cannot cut him, My Lady.
He stops swinging for a moment to answer belatedly: “Sister, He saves’m because He loves’m!” Then he trots back to the pew, saluting with his candlestick rifle.
I let him go. Grimly I murmur, “No, little brother.” He does not hear me. I sheathe my gift, trembling, wondering how he might look in ten years, and who that smile, that salute, might resemble.
In the woods beyond, Our Lady’s eyes burn. Not enough.
From my triumphs and failures I learn many things: that few beliefs live free of causes or causes free of emotion; that no cause, however solid, lacks the air of doubt respiring between its atoms; and that little boys believe in some things far less than others. Above all, I learn that Our Lady relishes the taste of feelings, whose bright fibres line each causal thread as meat lines a bone. Loves are her special delicacy. Of all the golden threads, loves are the strongest—fierce and thick, like gristle. I lay them before Our Lady and she gnaws them, the leathery transubstantiation of reason into flesh. Love of country, love of family, love of God: love of anything that might excuse the smoking Tophet of Europe.
Sister Caritas is sweeping leaves from the cloister’s flagstones when I approach. Of all the novices she is the youngest, cowled not a year ago, when snow was just creeping over the mud in no-man’s-land. But her love leaps out of her like a golden beacon. Thick and muscled as a hawser, it stretches not towards the abbey but away—far away, over the sea, to a moor lost somewhere in the night of France.
Stepping around the pile of red leaves—why so many, and so dead?—I bow my head beside hers and murmur: “If you loved him, why did you join our order?”
Sister Caritas stiffens. “How did you—”
“Sister, please. Everyone knows.” This is not true, though it is hard for me to accept that the others cannot see it, this cause filling her eyes and face and spilling out from them as the sun thunders out of heaven. “Why take the veil when you love a man?”
She stumbles back a few paces, her young eyes raw as gashed mud. “I gave myself to God,” she whispers. “I thought, if we can’t be together—then at least I could—he’s at the Front. It will protect him.”
“Will it?” I ask, and rasp my gift past my whetstone heart. Bless me, Isaac: my blade must be sharp to saw through this iron love laid fearlessly across the Atlantic. “Will even our Lord’s sacrifice protect him? Or any of them? Just because our Lord died and you denied yourself, does that mean any last one of them won’t die?” She shrinks back. I advance, holding my gift aloft like a guillotine. “What did you think your love could do?”
“Sister—” The iron hawser creaks.
“Just because you love him, you think he will be safe?”
“Sister, please!” She sobs and drops the broom, and its bristles splash out around her, a weave of golden threads tearing their limbs on the teeth of my gift. I advance.
“Do you think your love is enough?” I hiss. “Is it a good enough reason for him to live?” Mine was not, cries each push of my saw—mine was not.
She is melting to the floor in a writhe of golden fibres. “No,” she leaks. “No, please, no.”
Standing above her as if above a snared hare, my gift—my blade, my reason—whispers: “What cause is there to love him if you can’t save him?”
The writhing stops, and the soft body goes slack.
Sister Caritas rises. Her lacunar eyes are numb. Below them, like a dead snake, the heavy rope of her love slumps its severed tendons. Taking up her broom, she shakes her head and resumes sweeping. After a moment, she glances back over her shoulder.
“Thank you, Sister,” she says in a voice flat as a corpse. “How silly I’ve been. Bernard. What reason did I have? Why love him at all?”
And sweeps away.
I remain behind on the leafy flagstones, flushed with triumph, hands heavy with the rich hecatomb I will carry to Our Lady of the Causeless Sorrows. I try to imagine Isaac’s laugh of glory at my victory, but I cannot hear it; my mind feels strangely deaf, ringing as if hit by shellburst. Sister Caritas’s last words sting like blood in my mouth.
What reason, Isaac? Why love at all?
Two days later, Sister Caritas leaves the abbey.
She is the first. As September mists into October and my gift drifts across our fallowing abbey like yellow gas, more and more Sisters find that the metallic warps cinching their lives have corroded. Loosed, they take flight—rising above the smoke like freed carrier pigeons, unshackled from God, from love, from reason. They take the acolytes, their siblings and cousins, with them. Below, I bow my head in the trenches and smile grimly. It is worth it, though I cannot see the sky, nor remember Isaac’s voice or the colour of his eyes; it is worth it. For you, my brother. For you, My Lady.
Two weeks after Sister Fidea leaves, I sit with our Abbess on the dormitory’s back steps, facing the dripping October woods. An Acadian from the poor East, her hands have already torn the telegrams of two brothers. Yet here she remains, fulfilling her empty round of duties like a mill mule. Oh My Lady, she would be a good prize.
“Sister Spera is leaving too,” the Abbess says quietly. “She says she cannot understand anything anymore. I have tried to convince her to rest, seek a doctor—but she refuses. She wants to follow Sister Fidea to the Front as a nurse. What shall they do there?” She shakes her head. “That’s twelve now—more than half of us. It is taking our abbey, this war—this stupid, senseless war.”
“Yes, senseless,” I repeat slowly, unsettled. Is our Abbess, this unwavering golem of faith, secretly a devotee of Our Lady? It cannot be, for it was she who first told me the great lie: that Isaac died for God; that all things, however hideous, have a cause. “Yet—your brothers, Reverend Mother,” I stumble. “What cause, if the war is senseless?”
Her look is old and buried. “You’re young, Sister. Men need senseless things to die for. That is the reason. Or rather—that is faith.”
My heart catches, and instinctively I flick my eyes towards the grotto, where the white stare burns. How can this be, My Lady? The Abbess is no acolyte, no guileless child: how can she so calmly accept—so placidly—her brothers and Isaac, and her Lord, your son, My Lady! For no reason at all? Frightened, I wrench my gift up my throat like a sword, and its edges scorch as I ask, “But—but surely they don’t need to die?”
“No,” she says. “But they can, and so they do.” She frowns, then lays a hand on my shoulder. “I forget myself, Sister. I am sorry for Isaac.”
My gift’s blade shudders through the emptiness of her words, touching no golden chain of causes but plunging down and down. Panicked, furious, I swing my gift like a scythe, mowing at this void that I can almost see rising from the Abbess, a faith without reason, formless and invincible as nightfall. “But that is no cause at all!” I gasp, stabbing. “Just because they can do it, doesn’t mean they should! That is no cause! No cause!”
A shadow flits across her face. “No, I suppose,” she says. She looks down and away, and then lifts herself from the step. “That is no cause for anything, it’s true. Good day, Sister.”
Panting, I watch her drift away, my throat raw and my habit soaked in sweat. My own words trickle down my windpipe to tickle my lungs like blood: just because they can, doesn’t mean… I cough and shake my head. Sister Caritas’s image flips to the surface of my swimming mind, then sinks again like a dead fish. With each low breath my chest throbs, as if the kickback from my gift’s barrage has bruised my ribs.
Away in the dank woods, Our Lady smoulders like a white coal. I can feel the heat of her anger at my failure, and the hiss as her hunger burns the wet air to smoke. Not enough.
“Yes, My Lady,” I whisper shakily. Behind me, the windows of our vacant dormitory weep. “But My Lady, when is enough?”
She does not answer. Beyond the smoky evening clouds, a mourning dove whistles distantly: Isaac’s face, thrown up on the pink sky like sputum.
It is early November.
The trees are bare. In her grotto, Our Lady’s face slimes with rain, and black leaves clump wetly in genuflection about her feet. I tend her daily, but all my ministrations cannot scour the grime of the season.
I finished with the Sisters last week. The more that left, the easier it became, for the desertion of so many faithful unnerved the others, as the first few starlings to clatter away from a tree preview the scattering of the flock. Finally only two were left, the eldest Sisters in the abbey, like owls wedged in an old snag. It was only when I realized that they clung here not for love of God, or nation, or men, but of each other that my gift sang out its target and I shelled the golden matrix between them until it wept, all the while imagining Our Lady’s smile as the blood smoked at her feet. I carried her the sacrifice that night and lay its carcass before her: the memory of their unlinked hands, their glass stares as they packed their belongings, their slow meander away from the abbey in opposite directions, glancing back over their shoulders at one another like mirrors that have forgotten how to reflect. Why love, at all? “No cause,” I murmur to the stale woods.
The Sisters have all gone, but still our Abbess, my greatest failure, rolls the worn groove of habit like a glass ball: singing matins, lighting candles, retrieving the newspaper from the end of the lane. I join her in none of these duties, but she says little to me and does not question my lack of observance.
I have done it, Isaac: they have all flown. I stride through the emptied buildings victorious, surrounded by the cuttings of their golden cages and dangling my sated weapon in my hand. A great silence suspends heaven and earth. They have flown, but their faiths lie senseless below the mud—unrisen as you are, Isaac, meal for worms and poppies. I have avenged you, my brother. Haven’t I?
On the third day of the second week of November, our Abbess, without knocking, rolls back the heavy door to my room. She lays a damp paper there and then moves away again without speaking.
ARMISTICE SIGNED, the headline reads.
A great silence suspends heaven and earth. With a start I recognize it: the silence of the causeless void, the hollow that fills the Abbess like a black sun. Shivering, I look past the walls towards the wet woods and their dim statue, plump as a saprophage with my offerings. “My Lady,” I say, “why does our peace sound so empty? We won, didn’t we? Isn’t it enough?”
She does not answer. Trembling, I lay the paper down on my cot and turn away—but as I do I feel a sharp tug of pain, as if my veins have been hooked. I return to the paper and look down. Like golden ink sluicing from the headline’s serifs, threads of light span from the page to my chest: causes, bright as water, thick as love.
“My Lady,” I say softly, “what are these?”
In the woods, in the rain, white eyes lift. They are the final sacrifice, they seem to say. The last test. The leap of faith.
“But what are they?”
“Isaac,” I whisper.
I rise to my feet. The strings pull at me, burning. I do not need to draw my gift: it is here, in my hand, cocked and ready. I think of my brother, lying far away below the mud of no-man’s-land, piled beside the wounded faiths of the Sisters—the masonry of bones upholding the world, braced with its golden woof of causes: endless, anonymous, meaningless. A million reasons, dead in the mud. I think, and suddenly I know that I am not sorry.
What reason, Isaac? Why love you at all?
A shot, a kick, the char of powder; and, after, the small swift cry of thread snapping.
I look up to find the Abbess standing in the doorway.
“I am leaving the abbey,” I say.
Her hollow eyes blink in surprise. “Why? The war is over, Sister.”
Everywhere, on the Front, in the grotto, in my heart, everywhere is silence. Our Lady bows her head in triumph.
“Yes, it’s over,” I say, with a smile. “We won.”
Story copyright © 2016 by Brittany Pladek
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Pear Nuallak
Brittany Pladek is a literature scholar who also writes speculative fiction. She lives with her partner in Milwaukee, WI, where she spends her weekends hiking, birding, and mushrooming. A recovering Luddite, she can be found on Twitter @bpladek.
Pear Nuallak (artwork) looks to their Thai heritage and the many faces of women to create words and images. They’ve contributed illustrations to The SEA Is Ours and The Future Fire.