The heat reverberates in Sister Annie’s mind; it shimmers like electric air above the grey-green sea. First the train passes through the city with its tenements, its air that stinks of refuse and sewage, passing row after row of brick house with slate roofs and chimney stacks that blur one by one until they are all brown sticks against the pale smoggy blue sky of late July.
Philadelphia disappears from Sister Annie’s view finally after an hour, and the world is leafy and green again; she remembers the fields of chamomile and bachelor’s button of her childhood. She compares those fields in her memory to the gentle rolling fields of western Pennsylvania, where farmers leer at the train as it passes through the grades into worn hills strewn with rocks and trees. She looks back at Mother Superior reading from her prayerbook, nodding off into sleep as the Pullman car sways gently on the rails. Two white men look down on her and puff away at their cigars.
The porter, chocolate-dark and compliant, offers her lemonade.
‘Where you comin’ from?’ the porter asks. ‘Who you know out in California?’
‘I’m a nun,’ Sister Annie says, gently, as if she is telling a secret. To prove her point, she pulls out a rosary and fingers the crucifix with a thumb and forefinger. The porter looks at her, shakes his head and walks away.
The only thing Sister Annie has known all her life is Philadelphia. She remembers the smell of offal cooking in grease, the sound of the blacksmith cursing God and man in the streets, the acrid stench of death in the slaughterhouse, the steaming rivers of blood flowing from dead horses kicking their lives out on the cobblestones. She struggles to remember her dead mother’s face, the face of her dead sister (murdered, dumped in Baltimore Harbor) and her the calloused hands of her dead brother (murdered, at Antietam). She does not know who her father was, but the stories her mother told her relate that he is kind-eyed, virile, strong, a man of tropical sensibilities and urban sophistication. Born free, you must understand. Never a slave.
The porter pushes a cart full of tea sandwiches through the aisle. A very nice man, a fellow Catholic, with an unusual gentility for 1878, pays for Sister Annie’s meal.
‘Are you going out West to teach Negroes and Indians to read?’ he asks.
She has heard questions like these before, they are all the same, Sister Annie nods, gently, but does not look up at him.
There are many stops before the train finally accelerates out of Pennsylvania: Brooksville, Eagle, Paoli where Sister Annie and Mother Superior dine on potted roast chicken and new potatoes and a slice of chocolate cake that the sisters have baked for her. The porter delivers the newspaper, and Mother Superior squints through her pince-nez glasses to read about that den of sinners known as the US Congress. The children crowd around the windows, black and white, sticks and balls in hand, to ask why Sister Annie wears a funny hat. Sister Annie closes the shade and tries to sleep. An hour later the train is moving and everything is loud and dim. A cool breeze blows through the half-opened car window. She can smell the rain.
The next day the train is in Ohio and Indiana and the rain streaks the window. Everything is grey and wet, and for a moment it feels like a humid October afternoon. She remembers the convent in Philadelphia, the smell of starched linen and the polish of wooden veneers, the cool dark of the chapel where she prays to God. The train passes through Cincinnati, resinous and fragrant with the scent of maples, and she sees Black men and women in buckboards with fancy hats on the way to Bible study in the rain. The children run alongside the train track and yell incoherent nonsense to the nonplussed businessmen, the ladies who look away in disgust and sniff their tussy-mussies in polite contempt. Mother Superior’s fingers course her rosary beads, and the two of them recite the Regina Coeli together as they pass through a city full of Italians peddling tomatoes and grapes and Greeks selling lemons and oregano, and dour-faced white women with market baskets shuffling on walkways made of planks past beautiful dark-skinned boys shoveling coal into pails. At Vincennes, Indiana, Mother Superior spies two priests step on with just suitcases that the porter struggles to pack away.
‘A good sign,’ she says. ‘And also a bad sign.’
‘Why?’ Sister Annie says.
‘We’re almost to the West, but also amongst Mormons.’
The land abruptly flattens in Indiana and rolls out gently like a blanket spread out against heaven, Indian land. Not to the Mississippi yet, but almost there. The train groans on the rail in the heat. Sister Annie pats her brow with an embroidered handkerchief. Mother Superior splashes cool water on her face.
The conductor announces that they will be stopping for refreshment at a river.
‘A godsend,’ Mother Superior says, relieved.
In the plains the heat is ferocious and unforgiving. Somewhat like the people, when provoked to unjust anger. Sister Annie thinks of the men who lynched her school friend and her husband out here, for trying to buy a nag. You don’t do that out there in those parts, a white man told Sister Annie once. She can’t remember where she met him–whether it was just right after the War, when she was young, or whether it was a dying man in the hospital, or maybe a man passing through. You don’t pretend you’re on equal footing with white people. I’ve never been prejudiced. Not one prejudiced bone in my body. If you ask me that was wrong, what they done to your friend. But you don’t presume to place yourself on the square and narrow with white folks. They just won’t have it.
Here is where Sister Annie recognizes nothing. There is sky and grass, and rails. And cows. She sees an Indian dying in the street on the way down to the water hole. Mother Superior takes his temperature and gives him a bit of food, pays the doctor in the town to give him a bed to die in.
‘I don’t take Indians in, there’s no telling what he’ll do if he gets better.’
‘You don’t need to worry,’ Mother Superior says, pressing the money into the doctor’s hand.
‘I’m a Lutheran, just so you know. I don’t take money from no Papists.’
‘It shouldn’t matter who I am,’ she replies. ‘Just take the money.’
‘Who do you think you are?’ the doctor asks.
‘It’s not important,’ Mother says. ‘A good Samaritan.’
One of the priests from Vincennes, Father Dyer, rolls a cigarette out in front of the hotel where the Indian is dying. The other priest, Father Gerard, is giving the dying Indian viaticum.
‘Where are you headed?’
‘California. And then Washington territory.’
‘Long way,’ Father Dyer says, lighting the cigarette.
‘New Mexico territory,’ he says. ‘I’m not ready for the heat. Rather prodigious, much more so than what they lead on.’
‘It’s rather nice, depending on where you go in New Mexico.’
‘Oh yes,’ Mother Superior replies sweetly. ‘I taught my first classes there in Taos, after the Mexican War. I’ve come back east to fetch Sister Annie here to send her out to a new convent in Roseland.’
‘Never have heard of it,’ Father Dyer says. ‘The originals of the place will be in for a surprise,’ he chuckles.
The other priest comes out and shakes his head.
‘We should call the undertaker.’
‘How long ago did he pass?’
Father Gerard checks his pocket watch. ‘Some ten minutes ago.’
The heat breaks that evening. A cool wind comes with a night fog that dissipates before the front of a violent thunderstorm. In the hotel Sister Annie cannot stay asleep, and she watches as the lightning streaks and flashes across the sky, and she feels the thunder rumble down to her bones.
The undertaker rolls out a coffin the next morning. A few women huddle across the street to see what will happen. The priests follow the wagon, in surplice and biretta, reading the breviary. Mother Superior and Sister Annie go as far out as the burying ground, which abuts a tepid, foul-smelling stream.
They bury the Indian at three in the afternoon and pay the undertaker for a tombstone.
‘Did you know his name?’ they ask the undertaker.
‘Indian Joe,’ the undertaker replies.
Sister Annie looks at the grey sky overhead, and closes her eyes in prayer.
St Louis is a Sodom, roiling under the sun. Sister Annie sees wealthy-looking Black men in tweed suits spill from overcrowded rail cars to head over to the saloons for the three o’clock drink. She smells the scent of chili and green bell pepper and frying tripe wafting from shoddy shacks lining a muddy street.
The smokestacks of factories and foundaries belch fat columns of black smoke as far as the eye can see. The smell is sickening.
‘Don’t close the window,’ Mother Superior says. ‘We’ll die of the heat if we do.’
A new conductor comes aboard and spends a long time looking at Sister Annie’s ticket.
‘Who told you that could sit up here, girl?’
‘I did,’ Mother Superior replies, firmly. ‘We don’t travel alone.’
‘I didn’t ask you,’ the conductor says. ‘You can’t be up here. You need to get up and get on back. That’s where we keep the colored folk.’
‘She isn’t going anywhere,’ Mother Superior says.
The conductor is losing his patience and clears his voice.
‘I don’t think you heard me, ma’am. This Negro woman is forbidden on the train. Now I don’t care if you’re the Queen of Roumania and she’s Princess Caraboo. If you don’t like you, both of you should get off the train.’
The porter looks helpless as he takes their bags and sets them down gently on the platform.
‘Beg your pardon, ma’am,’ the porter says over and over again. ‘Beg your pardon. Beg your pardon.’
‘I will have to write the Archbishop.’
‘I’m sorry, Mother–’
‘There’s nothing to be sorry about, my daughter. You did nothing wrong. Perhaps I did wrong. Maybe the Lord wanted us to ride with the other people in the back.’
‘You were only doing what you thought was right,’ Sister Annie says. ‘Besides. I would have gotten up and gone if he wanted me to.’
‘But you didn’t want to,’ Mother Superior says. ‘And there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to go to a place you don’t want to go.’
Mother Superior does not sleep that night but pens a letter to the Archbishop. She hands the note to an errand boy who runs across town to the Archbishop. At seven in the morning Sister Annie is spreading jam on her toast at the hotel in St Louis when the boy comes back, with a note.
Mother Superior reads it and sits back in her chair.
‘His Excellency has made protest to the railroad officials via telegraph.’ She folds the note and puts it in her bag. ‘They have reimbursed our tickets. We leave tomorrow evening.’
In the afternoon the nuns walk to the Cathedral alone. The men do not leer and gawk at them like they did in Vincennes. Downtown St Louis seems like a nice place to be a nun. Everyone keeps to themselves, even the Irish boys washing their horses and scrubbing the carriages, even the Black and Spanish boys corralling the horses in the carriage-house, even the German and Italian girls skipping down the block, singing to themselves and carrying armfuls of fabric and bread. The breeze picks up as they get closer to the river and for a moment Sister Annie smells linden and roses, someone’s potted chicken spilling over a fire, and she hears the sounds of mothers calling in their children to eat dinner. The Cathedral in St Louis is cool and dark and still, a cold grey temple with cool pink walls inside and no one praying. Sister Annie thinks of her sister laughing in the splash of cold water from a creek they played in as a child, her mother mending a dress, the bright world of a June day mottled with green grass and little pink roses. The sunset brings a cool breeze into town and they walk back after Mass saying nothing, just as the lamps are being lit and the dust is rising in an angry, defiant little cloud that whirls itself into oblivion on the street.
‘She’s not going to be a problem.’
‘I didn’t think she was,’ the station agent says.
‘Please sir, we are two women religious. We don’t bother anyone. I’m sure you’ve dealt with our ilk before. We are most happy to keep to ourselves, provided there isn’t anyone to make trouble for us,’ Mother Superior replies.
‘Now you listen here! You best not be giving nobody any trouble, you hear me, girl?’ the station agent says to Sister Annie. He has stopped looking at Mother Superior, who is shocked into silence. ‘No carrying on. No loud talking. You bother one of the other patrons, I’ll toss your black behind into the street where no one will render aid to you.’
The station agent slams the door to the cabin shut.
Mother Superior’s frown eases. She chuckles.
‘We should pray for him,’ she says. ‘He looks like he needs it.’
The train pulls away and Sister Annie heaves a sigh of relief. She looks out of the window. The sky is pink and purple. She watches it sink into a deep-blue against the black edge of the horizon with its smell of new-mown hay and its flickering green clouds of lightning bugs.
Four days in and they have left Missouri and Kansas, blighted with heat and struck dumb with the sound of cicadas buzzing in the locust trees, its grey rocks and its yellow ground. Kansas is nothing like she has ever seen, a flat wasteland with very little green, except for a few stark places where the trees shoot up like hands cupped to heaven as if to beg God for rain. Sister Annie drifts off to hand somewhere in-between chapters of Introduction to the Devout Life, she is transported in her dreams back east to the foggy dark of a Baltimore on the cusp of war, young men torching the houses of black and brown people, driving them into the street. Sister Annie sees her sister pushed through a crowd of angry boys, stripped, slapped, beaten to a pulp, pushed into Baltimore Harbor, her legs kicking in the green-black sea, her body floating amidst the whoops and hollers of the crowd, the black starless sky, the belts of waves buffeting her swollen body, the flies that hover over her lips. The nightmare is enough to jolt her just as she sees the distant mountains appear over the horizon, Mother Superior reciting the Hours quietly in her monotone.
‘A nightmare,’ she tells Mother Superior.
‘Pray with me,’ Mother Superior replies.
The landscape blurs together in a haze of pink and purple twilight, the peaks of the distant mountains growing closer, until they loom over her in Denver, in a bosom of pines that whisper in the dry south wind. She rests her eyes and in the dim light of the Pullman car she hears Mother Superior recite a litany to Our Lady of Loretto, gently, and the words wash over her like waves, have mercy on us, have mercy on us, have mercy on us. Carefully, she draws the quilt over her tiny body, her dark fingers slipping over the rosary beads, Mother Superior caressing her face in the dark, telling her God bless you, daughter, first of my own flock to come to the West. And there amid the mute granite temples of time,
Sister Annie realizes that this west is all hers now, her very own country, where the pain and the misery could be dissipated in the golden light of the west, the endless freedom of the cool fresh air, the lost and undiscovered country where the light’s fingers reach into the pines to hear the touch the place where angels inscribed the burnished name of Almighty God.